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Computer Science | Electrical Engineering

Digital sovereignty planning is a game changer

A strategic means to assess, plan and manage a nation’s digital assets across the entire value chain is essential to achieve digital sovereignty.

The critical infrastructure that nations rely upon, such as transport, energy supply and water, are all vulnerable to cyber attacks that could severely disrupt the provision of these vital services. © 2023 KAUST; Anastasia Serin.

As society increasingly relies on digital technology, protecting these broader digital assets becomes vital. Research at KAUST recommends that it should be a priority for every nation to proactively plan for its digital sovereignty and develop a roadmap that can be applied by most modern countries to help address this urgent need.

Digital sovereignty encompasses a nation’s supreme authority to manage its digital assets, explains Ali Shoker, a cybersecurity scientist at KAUST. Managing digital sovereignty is crucial, Shoker argues, as it underpins a state’s independence, national security and economy[1]. However, many countries are yet to take this threat seriously.

Contemporary national digital assets include critical infrastructure such as transport, water and energy utility production and provision, including fossil fuel rigs and nuclear plants. Also vulnerable are institutions with sensitive data such as military or medical infrastructure, or the increasing range of smart and connected production systems that comprise Industry 4.0.

KAUST research scientist Ali Shoker (pictured) outlines how digital sovereignty is crucial to each individual nation’s independence, national security and economy. © 2023 KAUST; Anastasia Serin.

For technological revolutions, the understanding and interplay of the policy, regulatory and management environment tends to lag behind the rapidly evolving technology. Previous efforts to manage digital sovereignty have emphasized data ownership and privacy and, more recently, have expanded to include economic monopoly, intellectual property and cyberwarfare.

Shoker argues for a broader set of considerations. “My research and industry experience suggests that to effectively manage their digital sovereignty effectively, nations need to take an approach that encompasses the entire value chain of using, owning, and producing digital assets,” says Shoker. He notes that this broader, more strategic approach would address maintaining the integrity and supply of data, infrastructure, fabrication, raw material and operational resources (raw material and human expertise), as well as the research and innovation required for sustainable sovereignty.

“After all, the data is the core digital asset,” explains Shoker, “so digital sovereignty can be undermined if it does not consider the entire value change that generates, stores, processes, operates and manages the data.”

Going solo or working together

Currently nations use one of two paths to manage their digital sovereignty: autonomy, where they act alone or with little dependence on foreign states, or cooperation, whereby they negotiate binding agreements such as treaties with other states. For the cooperation strategy, one tool used by academics to understand it is game theory — which models how rational actors behave to achieve their goals — that, in the case of digital sovereignty, is known as a cooperative bargaining strategy.  

Shoker proposes adding a third approach, known as the Nash Equilibrium — a powerful game theory tool used for analyzing strategy in disciplines such as economics, social science and political science. With the Nash Equilibrium, the “players” stick to their chosen strategy, even when they are aware of their opponents’ strategy, as it remains their optimal option. “This is a hybrid cooperative and noncooperative strategy,” says Shoker.

An agenda for digital sovereignty

For a nation to develop its digital sovereignty, Shoker proposes an agenda based on its capability and digital maturity — from countries that mostly rely on others, to those that can produce their own digital technology and infrastructure. It also includes consideration of both current and future development of their digital sovereignty. He describes it in three phases: self-assessment, planning and implementation.

The self-assessment phase aims to gather a nuanced stocktake and understanding of a nation’s digital assets and threats, and the risks to these across the entire value chain. An optimal way to gather this understanding is by establishing a national agency with a charter to assess, plan, implement and evaluate planning and management of these digital assets and context. The agency would also broker and mediate discussions with other relevant ministries.

The planning phase aims to develop a roadmap to achieve digital sovereignty, one that takes a pathways approach to map out short-term planning for three years, but is set within a longer-term plan over a decade. Priority would be given to the most critical sectors or assets.

“Ideally, nations would aim for autonomy over their digital sovereignty across the range of digital assets and the value chain, but if circumstances make this impossible, various bargaining strategies — including a Nash equilibrium — can be used to negotiate cooperation,” explains Shoker.

Following a successfully planning phase, a nation can define legislation and regulation that can be enforced following a settling-in period to enable stakeholders to make their own changes. This implementation period should be accompanied by a research and innovation phase to ensure that tools and techniques for digital sovereignty are state of the art and stay abreast of potential risks.

Shoker suggests that this agenda demonstrates that any nation can begin the work toward digital sovereignty by using existing tools and techniques. But this area will benefit from future research to develop a more exhaustive threat model and countermeasures. Further work is also needed to deepen and expand game theory strategies, especially within coalitions such as the European Union or alliances such as NATO, to better understand the effects on member state sovereignties.

The current landscape of data surveillance, leaks, cyberattacks and monopolization of digital resources underscores the importance of nations taking control of their own digital assets and supply chains, Shoker concludes. “Strengthening digital sovereignty is crucial to safeguarding national interests in the digital era.”

  1. Shoker, A. Digital Sovereignty Strategies for Every Nation. Applied Cybersecurity & Internet Governance 1 (1), 1-17 (2022). article
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