Are terrestrial digital conflicts extending to Space?
THE FUTURIAN #6
The internet revolution has resulted in numerous boons for humanity. The contemporary world is more interconnected and smaller than ever before in human history. This is a result of the global network. Digitalisation has given rise to a number of new industries and communities in the process. The digital revolution has also led to the rise in automation of manual process. The new 5G enabled Internet-of-Everything is set to accelerate this trend further. The future is set to witness greater integration of technology in every aspect of the human experience. However, the boons are not evenly divided. Close to three billion people remain without internet. The majority of the unconnected reside in the developing world. With the digital economy accelerating, this digital divide poses the potential to further eschew the already lopsided global spread of economic development.
This problem also presents an opportunity. Digital infrastructure programmes such as the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Digital Silk Road (DSR) exploited the opportunity to connect the unconnected. Many have received internet access under the scheme in numerous parts of the world. PRC companies have constructed network infrastructure in unserved areas of the globe. However, the initiative is far from above board. PRC digital infrastructure sports backdoor threats. PRC companies are also legally bound to assist in foreign intelligence work under the National Intelligence Law. The foreign user data stored by PRC firms within the PRC is also susceptible to state access under the PRC’s Cybersecurity Law. These factors have prompted concerns of economic, political, technological and social espionage and interference.
Despite its success and concerns relating to it, the DSR has been unable to resolve the world’s connectivity problems. In response, multinational groupings such as the Quad have launched counter digital infrastructure projects. The United States of America (US) has also launched its own digital infrastructure plans. However, terrestrial infrastructure is insufficient to solve the world’s digital connectivity issues. Regions like Southeast Asia are uneconomical for terrestrial connectivity solutions to be implemented. Under these circumstances, the world has begun searching for alternatives to spread digitalisation.
One solution for solving this divide is literally out of this world. Extra-terrestrial internet infrastructure has been used for decades. However, the limited bandwidth and transmission lags of Geosynchronous Orbit satellites limited their usage to backhaul tasks. In recent years, satellites have begun to be placed closer to the Earth’s surface. Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites feature higher bandwidth speeds at the cost of coverage. LEO High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) are increasingly being deployed in constellations to solve the coverage issue. This iteration provides close to broadband speeds with near instantaneous transmissions. The technology is set to play a critical role in the future of digital connectivity. The technology is also to be used in critical infrastructure applications. With the rise of the Industrial-Internet-of-Things, critical infrastructure facilities are increasingly relying on internet connectivity for their operations. Many industries are already using satellite internet to oversee operations. The rise of LEO satellite internet will enable similar connectivity for remote regions.
Companies from many world powers are participating in this process. From the US, Starlink, for instance, intends to deploy its network globally. So does the UK’s OneWeb. Firms from the PRC, both state owned and private, are also developing LEO constellations. Indian companies are also venturing into this market. Many of these are global IoT specific constellations. LEO satellite internet would provide low-cost remotely accessible internet in the farthest corners of the globe. This rise of the phenomenon is thus set to contribute to the reduction in the world’s digital divide.
The picture of the future is far from amiable however. LEO satellite internet operators would in essence be Internet Service Providers (ISPs). ISPs have for long possessed abilities to conduct mass surveillance upon their users. ISPs can extract a massive quantum of user data and metadata as well. ISPs can also undertake cross device surveillance. Protections such as like HTTPS, DNS-over-HTTPS and VPNs exist. However, ISPs can block access to many of these. ISPs in the past have also inserted malware and trackers in user network traffic. This is an especially concerning prospect considering the critical infrastructure applications of the technology.
The role of satellite internet was also seen in the recent Russian-Federation (RF)-Ukraine war. Starlink supplied satellite internet, which enabled the Ukrainian forces to undertake drone warfare and coordinate strikes. Satellite internet also enabled the conflict to be connected to the world digitally. However, the same conflict also demonstrated the control states have over their tech firms. US tech firms leaving the RF has resulted in many services ending. The governance of satellite internet is vested with the home countries of the providers. This is despite the end users being located elsewhere. The situation gets more complicated when considering the domestic laws such operators must comply with. Transmissions under satellite internet are routed through the home country of the providers as if the connection originated there. Therefore, the data transmitted would be liable to the censorship and government data sharing requirements of the provider’s home country. The PRC’s Great Firewall and Cybersecurity law are examples of requirements such providers may need to meet. The rise in Civil-Military fusion would also mean that such services may be used to deliver malware to unsuspecting targets.
The governments of where LEO satellite internet providers operate would not be completely powerless. Most countries in the world have demanded a metaphorical kill switch for the providers. The rationale being that governments could shut down the operators’ service in case they are found to be engaging in actions deemed unacceptable. However, it is unlikely that operators would rebel against their home countries. This is especially critical in the presence of home country laws which compel providers to further surveillance and assist in the state’s security plans. Another grave risk is that of space crowding. With the LEO area being increasingly crowded, risk of space debris can rise massively. If enough debris is released, space sustainability is threatened.
Contemporary history has witnessed increased competition over terrestrial digital infrastructure. LEO satellite internet has the potential to solve the digital divide. However, competition over digital infrastructure is also set to increase. Such competition is fuelled by the quest for data which is central in the new generation of warfare. The future holds greater leveraging of space to attain access to data from previously inaccessible locations. While digital connectivity is set to increase, so are the risks. But such is the trade-off of technological development. It seems that terrestrial digital conflicts will migrate to space.
© Samyak Rai Leekha 2022