Printer-friendly version
About the Author

André Xuereb, Ph.D., is the Maltese Ambassador for Digital Affairs as well as the Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Malta. He lectures in atomic and quantum physics and is the representative of the Maltese government on the EuroQCI board.

Perspective

Quantum Diplomacy: Rebalancing the Power Dynamic through Emerging Technologies

Few things worry governments more than the constant threat of cyberattacks,1 since most of their critical infrastructure is connected to the internet.2 Keeping communication networks secure against intrusion is therefore both a matter of concern for national security apparatus and essential to the well-being of citizens and economies around the world. As cybersecurity grows in importance, and governments worldwide educate their citizens about it3 and give businesses resources4 to secure their networks against intrusion, it is worth taking a step back and briefly examining its foundations.

Information is kept confidential during online transmission primarily through what is known as public-key cryptography.5 When information is sent from one person to another, it is encrypted by a mathematical key at one end and then decrypted at the other end by a different but related key.

What supports this entire edifice is an intricate piece of mathematics that makes it straightforward for two parties to communicate but difficult for an eavesdropper without the key to break open the communication.6 Difficult, but not impossible—it is the chink in our collective armor. Faster computers and new algorithms are fueling a cat-and-mouse game; encryption standards are periodically revised7 to meet emerging security challenges. But now quantum technologies threaten to upset this balance, rendering public key cryptography worthless against any government, corporation, or other actor with access to a quantum computer.8

In 2019, several member states of the European Union (EU) signed the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI) Declaration to meet this challenge.9 Deploying communication systems secured by quantum key distribution and post-quantum cryptography10 is necessary for the EU to safeguard its sovereignty in the face of ever-present threats of cyber-intrusions. This presents small nations like Malta with a rare opportunity; quantum communication technologies are at an early stage in their development, where it is possible for small players to make a significant impact. This would bring with it a significant windfall for the economy and high-tech employment in these nation-states.

In this perspective, I examine how a small nation such as Malta can employ science diplomacy11 to assert its role in this evolving ecosystem and turn itself into a leader. The first key lesson is to find a niche in an emerging technology that could have a global impact and where a small nation may still contribute. Quantum-secured communication is a prime example. The current generation of the technology is limited to distances of up to approximately 100 km in practice.12 In most countries, it is necessary to focus on lifting this limitation rather than bringing technology to market as it stands.13  Currently, this limitation provides a comparative advantage to small countries.

This brings me to my second observation. Smaller countries are better placed than larger ones to pioneer the adoption of new technologies. One factor that contributes are shorter chains of command, which could potentially give rise to more efficient decision-making.14 Another important factor is the possibility of implementing new technologies across various economic and governmental sectors; this is often facilitated by the physical proximity of the various regulators and other stakeholders. The combination of these two makes it easier to promote small nations to the private sector as testbeds for new technologies.

Next is something that, in my experience at least, tends to be lacking: the willingness to take ownership and leadership of an emerging technological sector. Supranational entities, particularly the EU in the case of Malta, are the ideal platform for small countries to undertake a leadership role regionally if not globally. The EuroQCI Declaration, of which Malta was one of the first signatories, provides an excellent case study. Malta presently co-chairs the EuroQCI board, made up of representatives from each of the twenty-seven signatory states formulating the vision and funding strategy to make EuroQCI a reality, giving this country an outsized role.

Having examined why a revolution in cybersecurity technology is currently underway and how a small nation like Malta can use this as an opportunity to take a leadership role, I conclude with some more practical points. As part of EuroQCI, Malta could set up a quantum-secured network that connects government offices, data centers, telecommunication systems, and more, around the country. Together with the physically self-contained nature of an island state, this provides a unique opportunity to develop the technology further. It would seed a quantum-aware workforce and turn Malta into a regional hub for quantum technology.

By positioning itself as a technological champion, Malta can then claim to be a legitimate representative of small states more broadly, thus giving smaller states as much of a voice as larger ones in the field of emerging technologies. This dynamic is already visible in quantum technologies, where Maltese input regularly features at the European level through the EuroQCI board. Industry in small states tends to be composed of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).15 Giving small nations greater visibility brings with it the added benefit of prioritizing SMEs over large international corporations, which is in turn beneficial for their citizens.16

Embracing technologies is beneficial to small countries: By becoming a technology creator, more than a consumer, a country enhances its sovereignty and improves the lives of its citizens. Furthermore, in taking a leadership role, a small country can grow its diplomatic footprint beyond what might otherwise be expected from it.

 

Endnotes

  1.  Nick Paton Walsh, “Serious Cyberattacks in Europe Doubled in the Past Year, New Figures Reveal, As Criminals Exploited the Pandemic,” CNN Business, June 10, 2021, edition.cnn.com/2021/06/10/tech/europe-cyberattacks-ransomware-cmd-intl/index.html.
  2. European Commission, “Communication from the Commission on a European Programme for Critical Infrastructure Protection,” COM(2006) 786 final, December 12, 2006, eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=COM:2006:0786:FIN:EN:PDF.
  3. UK National Cyber Security Centre, “Top Tips for Staying Secure Online,” December 17, 2018, www.ncsc.gov.uk/collection/top-tips-for-staying-secure-online.
  4. Government of Malta, “B SECURE Launch Press Release,” June 13, 2019, cybersecurity.gov.mt/resource_articles/13-06-2019-b-secure-launch-press-release.
  5. Niels Ferguson and Bruce Schneier, Practical Cryptography (Indianapolis, IA: John Wiley and Sons, 2003).
  6. Nuh Aydin, “Public Key Cryptography and the RSA Cryptosystem,” Kenyon College Faculty Publications, 2009, digital.kenyon.edu/math_pubs/3.
  7. Alexander W. Dent, “Choosing Key Sizes for Cryptography,” Information Security Technical Report 15, no. 1 (February 2010): 21–27, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1363412710000312.
  8. .Sergey E. Yunakovsky et al., “Towards Security Recommendations for Public-Key Infrastructures for Production Environments in the Post-Quantum Era,” EPJ Quantum Technology 8, no. 14 (2021), epjquantumtechnology.springeropen.com/articles/10.1140/epjqt/s40507-021-00104-z.
  9. The European Commission, “The Future is Quantum: EU Countries Plan Ultra-Secure Communication Network,” DIGIBYTE, June 13, 2019, digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/news/future-quantum-eu-countries-plan-ultra-secure-communication-network.
  10. National Institute of Standards and Technology, “Post-Quantum Cryptography,” November 22, 2021, csrc.nist.gov/projects/post-quantum-cryptography.
  11. American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Science Diplomacy: An Introduction,” www.aaas.org/programs/center-science-diplomacy/introduction.
  12. Sören Wengerowsky et al., “Entanglement Distribution over a 96-Km-Long Submarine Optical Fiber,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 116, no. 14 (2019): 6684–6688, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818752116.
  13. Toshiba Corporation, “Toshiba Announces Breakthrough in Long Distance Quantum Communication,” AAAS EurekAlert!, June 7, 2021, www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/514480.
  14. Alberto Alesina, “Too Large and Too Small Governments,” in Vito Tanzi, Ke-Young Chu, and Sanjeev Gupta (eds.), Economic Policy and Equity (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 1999), www.imf.org/external/np/fad/equity/alesina.pdf.
  15. The European Commission, Annual Report on European SMEs 2017/2018, November 14, 2018, op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/a435b6ed-e888-11e8-b690-01aa75ed71a1/language-en.
  16. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Enhancing the Contributions of SMEs in a Global and Digitalised Economy,” Meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level, Paris, June 7–8, 2017, www.oecd.org/industry/C-MIN-2017-8-EN.pdf.