President's Commentary: Immunizing Information Technology Against Future Pandemics

October 1, 2020
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The microscopic biological particle that has altered the way of life for 7 billion people worldwide also has had a major technological impact. It has brought the importance of information technology to the fore, in terms of both working to alleviate the virus’ effects and supporting the lives of people impacted by the pandemic. The vitality of information technology has been put on display, and changes it has wrought are going to help define the new normal.

Information technology has influenced government, industry and academia—including the lowest levels of schooling. It has allowed key decision makers to stay connected to critical elements of their business operations, in both government and the private sector. These sectors have been able to maintain a high degree of continuity of operations because of their ability to exploit information technology.

People who have access to information technology and understand its implications have found it much easier to adjust to the limitations imposed by the pandemic than those who lack many of the capabilities. Learning and working are being affected by information technology changes during the pandemic, and we need to understand the impact on productivity in the schools and the workplace. Unfortunately, we have both a skills gap and a knowledge gap in being able to provide the necessary information technology to everyone.

Telework is here to stay as new and improved capabilities are developed, and the marketplace will continue to upgrade those capabilities as needs evolve. Along with virtual training, we’re just seeing the baseline—the early days—of what those capabilities could become. Look for these capabilities to become more user-friendly as they are embraced and grow in influence.

The ability to exploit these advances will be important to the economy and society at large. Users need to identify which new services and capabilities they are seeking. Technology companies already are pivoting to address growing user demands. As more applications appear online, changes in the nature of information technology will increase the stresses faced by those who are not adept in the needed skills.

But in addition to these opportunities, potential threats loom. Above all, the onset of COVID-19 is serving as a wake-up call to a number of potential scenarios that could imperil all aspects of society. To withstand the next disaster or conflict, we need a physically separate thin line of telecommunications and IT capabilities that can sustain critical command and control and decision-making processes across a broad set of threatening scenarios. Industry and government must determine the capabilities needed to maintain a minimal set of functions in an extended emergency. This concept is not new. During the Cold War, government and industry worked to ensure continuity of government operations, but that degree of preparedness has been relegated to the past. We need to revive it.

Add nefarious actors into any of these scenarios, and we could find ourselves in a full-blown nonkinetic conflict or the forerunner to kinetic operations. We need to take another look at the vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructure, especially those supporting continuity of government, industry and academia. The country needs a better understanding of supply chain vulnerabilities, including cybersecurity and single points of failure across the breadth of national security. This also includes bringing home vital manufacturing that we let migrate away to other nations. This pandemic has highlighted several vulnerabilities that require clear focus and urgent action.

There is a strong need for effective operational security for both the military and industry. We have lost many security and trade secrets to nefarious actors who seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to collect sensitive information from the plethora of devices and networks pressed into service. These adversaries undoubtedly are watching how we adapt to the new normal, and they just as certainly are considering how they could take advantage of us in a future national crisis.

Radio frequency allocation will continue to lurk as a key underappreciated national resource issue. Spectrum becomes even more critical as advanced telework capabilities extend into areas underserved and areas with spectrum congestion. This will require a concerted effort between government and industry.

The coronavirus is serving as a pathfinder for envisioning the future. We need to understand both the capabilities and the liabilities as information technology adjusts to the future. We must take the lessons learned and opportunities offered and place them on an urgent footing. We need to address the weaknesses in the infostructure exposed by this crisis and fix them quickly. Staring us in the face is both a challenge and an opportunity. We would be foolish not to act wisely.

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