Tech Sovereignty- A Quest for Nepal

Tech sovereignty is not only an eminent concern of developed and powerful nations, it is also a pursuit for small power like Nepal. Nepal’s quest for tech sovereignty should be focused on tech interest and tech security; digital transformation and infrastructures; protecting and controlling data and information; and securing connectivity


By GP Acharya (KATHMANDU, 24 June 2022) – The geopolitics of technology, following the geo-tech interest of tech superpowers, have largely affected countries like Nepal, while tech is allowing them to dominate in numerous ways. The geo-political and geo-digital situation of Nepal are quite challenging as there is higher possibility of geo-strategic and cyber-battle between the two most populous and giant economic rivals- China and India. Likewise, the mounting competition and confrontation- both geopolitical and technological- between the US and China has accentuated the likelihoods of Nepal being a battleground- both geostrategic and digital again.

Now the crucial concern is- How can Nepal mitigate the imminent threats in cyberspace, overcome the potential security challenges- both physical and digital, and leverage from the geopolitics of technology?

Tech sovereignty is not only an eminent concern of developed and powerful nations, it is also a pursuit for small power like Nepal. Tech sovereignty could be a key in determining national power capability. Nepal’s quest for tech sovereignty, however, should be focused on- defending tech and strategic affairs, raising the concern of tech interest and tech security, speeding up digital transformation, securing and controlling data (especially, big data), enhancing cyber intelligence, securing information and connectivity, protecting sensitive digital infrastructures against foreign predators and attackers, and initiating tech diplomacy and tech cooperation framework. It could also be about protecting citizens’ right on digital world- in which data ownership and citizen’s personal sovereign dignity are respected under ‘digital right’, whereas every individual is sovereign along with their personal data, information and corresponding interactions with digital and tech intelligence. Besides, Nepal can ensure to have access to state-of-art technologies and high-speed and secured broadband networks to the citizens at home- provided that they are equipped with respective tech and ICT skills.

 

Considering the resources and geo-digital situation, tech sovereignty for Nepal could be manifested as digital sovereignty, data sovereignty, and economic sovereignty.

 

Digital Sovereignty

Nepal can enhance its digital sovereignty particularly focusing on data and information, managing its cyberspace, controlling networks, and regulating data and information. Nepal’s cloud should guarantee for safety of data, while information and connectivity must be highly secured.

 

Despite impressive results in digital transformation, the existing digital infrastructures in Nepal are quite weak due to which banks, telecom, power-grids, airports and foreign missions among others are often witnessing critical cyber security threats. In Nepal, most of the banks are using digital platforms in the recent years, for the transaction of money, which is changing the flow of money. Yet, there is high vulnerability in internet based digital systems in Nepal, which is due to ‘Zero Protection Measure’.  Digital transformation alone is not a sufficient part of technological transformation. So, the goal has to be made on technological transformation, which could be helpful in attaining some of the aspects of tech sovereignty.

 

As Kathmandu is expected to be a smart city in near future, it has to undergo through big data analytics for automation. This may invite crucial challenges in maintaining data ethics, privacy, surveillance, social control, data processing, data care and data handling. Thus, digital sovereignty, a vital part of technological sovereignty, could be a pragmatic approach in operating ‘smart city technology’.

Yet the vital concern is- How can Nepal protect data, information, and sensitive digital infrastructures from foreign (cyber) actors or political predators?

 

As Nepal cannot manufacture any of the ICT components on its own, it still can validate the trustworthiness and sensitivities of such apparatuses imported from international markets, and prepare self for operation and maintenance. Amid the rising speculations on snooping and surveillance of ICT devices used by various international organizations/agencies in Nepal, Nepal should produce competent ICT experts such that they could sense and validate the true nature of ICT components. These kinds of readiness certainly contribute in attaining digital sovereignty.

 

Data Sovereignty

Data sovereignty is another aspect of technological sovereignty in which an effort can be made to develop technological infrastructures that would help mitigate security challenges- both digital and physical- in border. “National digital sovereignty is often associated with the need to store data within national borders”. Data sovereignty is associated with cross-border data flows, while data can be transferred between servers located in the neighboring countries and can be breached as Nepal do not have its own satellite server. More than 170 trillion data, reportedly, are breached every year globally.

 

Data, which are ‘public goods’, can be ‘core and strategic assets’ for the nation. Data are the potential source of economy when regulated effectively, while technology can maximize the production and income. The data, especially big data, can help transform the economies along with production growth once data are effectively used (McKinsey). Data is universal and can be traded worldwide, while the free flow of data can enhance economic growth- both domestic and global, productivity and innovation (Intereconomics, Review of European Economy, Vol. 56, 2021). Nepal should introduce ‘Data Protection Regulations’ such that every individual’s personal data could be secured- that would help enhance citizen’s personal sovereign dignity as well as help protect national security. Data and technological sovereignty can certainly result enormous power capability for Nepal.

 

Economic Sovereignty

Nepal can achieve economic sovereignty by making full access of its natural resources, tourism, culture, knowledge, skills, data and information. It should further emphasize ‘Knowledge Economy’ (KE) – knowledge-based economy, digital economy, tech economy, and information economy- which is largely driven by data and information. To enhance economic sovereignty, Nepal should preserve and best utilize its massive amount of natural resources including waters, rivers, lakes, Himalayas, forests, herbs, precious stones, mines, strategic minerals, energy and genetic bio-diversity.

 

The upper Mustang and surrounding Himalayan regions contain large quantity of ‘highest-grade’ Uranium, Lithium and Radium as well as various rare earth elements, claim the survey and research findings, Department of Mines and Geology. Since Uranium is used as fuel to enrich nuclear energy, Nepal can supply Uranium to the rich countries and earn huge amount of money, or it can embrace Nuclear Technology and research by its own under the “Radioactive Materials (Use and Regulation) Act- 2020”. Meanwhile, Nepal is already eligible for mining, enrichment, import, and export of Uranium as well as purchasing Nuclear Technology as it has already endorsed the nuclear bill in the parliament. Yet, Nepal should sensibly consult with nuclear scientists, nuclear physicists and chemists (chemical Engineers) along with international relations, law and diplomacy experts, particularly from Nepali origin, regarding the refinement and use of Radioactive Materials like Uranium such that Nepal’s prospect of nuclear technology could not challenge its long time quest for peace and ‘peace diplomacy’. At the same time, it should seriously consider the health, environment and pollution aspects of waste from Uranium mining, while the expertise, resources and technology need to be equipped in advance. Essentially, it should meet the objective- “to enhance overall national welfare through peaceful use of nuclear science undertaking its research and development for the economic and social prosperity of the country”- of National Nuclear Science Policy 2007. Nevertheless, Uranium, gold, precious stones and rare Himalayan herbs- that are ‘fungible forms of power’- could be equivalent to hard currency reserve, which help enhance Nepal’s national power capability. Tourism, water technology, green technology and nuclear technology can greatly contribute to achieve economic independence for Nepal, which would certainly lead to economic sovereignty.

The all-time prominent Philosophers- Adam Smith and Karl Marx- both believed that “‘production’ is the root and truth of economics”, while Knowledge Economy is the cutting-edge of innovative production. According to World Bank, the various elements of Knowledge Economy are- Education and Training, Information Infrastructure, Economic Incentive and Institutional Regime, and Innovation Systems. In a true sense, Nepal can achieve economic sovereignty only when Nepalese industries, knowledge, skills, culture, products, innovations and technologies enter into international market and be a part of ‘globally networked economy’.

 

Even though Nepal has huge challenges on both innovation and economic sovereignty, it still can think of technological sovereignty. Through the wider perspectives, tech sovereignty is also about protecting or preserving Nepalese values and culture. Since “culture is central to national identity and politics” throughout the world, Nepal should transform its culture into another economic product. Nepal is gifted with unique geography, history, culture, and altitudinal variation along with more than 125 ethnic and caste groups, 123 languages and more than 150 religious cults. Nepal should build a strong transnational community through tourism, while Nepal’s tourism can be one of the best export industries globally. Nepal can win the hearts, minds and spirits of tens of millions of people around the globe by promoting Nepali culture, tourism and internal values, which can help achieve some of Nepal’s foreign policy goals.

 

Tech Policy Framework

Nevertheless, amidst the existing geo-tech reality, geopolitics of technology, geopolitical shifts and uncertainties, and conflicting interests- geo-strategic, geo-political and geo-tech- of powerful nations, no country, irrespective of abundances of resources and tech capability, can preserve full extent of tech sovereignty, but they can still maintain a significant degree of technological independence, autonomy, security and control based on respective capacity and technological structure. Under tech sovereignty, Nepal can devise tech framework- both policy and cooperation- within the region and beyond, in which tech priorities and network can be identified and selected. The degree of sovereignty, however, needs to be considered based on severity of security challenges in specific tech sphere. Essentially, Nepal should consider tech sovereignty as a key in determining national power capability along with attaining security and state sovereignty in the long run.

(This article first appeared in Republica.)

 

(This article is second part of the previous article- “Tech Sovereignty: National Power Capability to Threat to Humanity”- published last week.)