Jacob Helberg

Senior Adviser, Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology

Class of 2020

“NYU’s MSCRS program connected me to an enormously talented community of practitioners and scholars. Several of my peers became good friends and immeasurably enriched my views on complex cybersecurity issues ranging from privacy protections to the structure of American law.

In the past several years, the challenges of cybersecurity and the looming possibility of cyber war have been thrust into the public consciousness. The latest entry to a growing list of books about cybersecurity and cyberweapons is by Jacob Helberg, a senior adviser at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology who spent four years leading Google’s effort to combat disinformation.  His book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, was published on October 12 by the Avid Reader Press imprint of Simon & Schuster. In addition to providing technical background on cybersecurity, the book outlines his views on the current tensions between the United States and China.  Helberg, a recent graduate of the NYU Law – Tandon Master’s Program in Cybersecurity Risk and Strategy (MSCRS), agreed to be interviewed on the eve of his book’s publication.  Below are his responses, edited for clarity and space.

MSCRS: How did your experience at NYU’s MSCRS program influence your thinking and drafting of The Wires of War?

JH: One of the most important experiences a university can provide its students is meaningful human connections. Being surrounded by talented and intellectually diverse individuals is invaluable at any stage of one’s career. This is especially true for professionals in the earlier stages of their careers, given that personal growth compounds over time. NYU’s MSCRS program connected me to an enormously talented community of practitioners and scholars. Several of my peers became good friends and immeasurably enriched my views on complex cybersecurity issues ranging from privacy protections to the structure of American law. Authors often want to examine a problem from different angles and perspectives; being able to do this with my peers at NYU was very helpful.

MSCRS: How have recent events such as Covid-19 disinformation, the 2020 election and the Q aftermath, and critical infrastructure attacks, including SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline, related to the positions you address in the book? 

JH: On the eve of the pandemic, I was writing this book making the case that China was a hostile adversary engaged in a Gray War against the United States. [Helberg defines Gray War as “the systemic global rivalry between democracy and autocracy.”] Today, the question is not so much whether or not China is hostile toward the United States; most observers accept that as generally true. Today, most observers accept that at an intuitive level even if the mainstream of our foreign policy community hasn’t yet coalesced behind a unified nomenclature. 

The reasons for this shift are numerous. Covid has accelerated an acute awareness among policymakers of the very real risks associated with China’s controlling so much of the world’s supply chains. The events that took place during Covid significantly reinforced the notion that the United States and China are already in a Gray War. Indeed, China has exploited the global lockdown to enact the most significant domestic consolidations of power in my lifetime. Finally, the pandemic has shown us that we’re in a Gray War but that the Gray War could actually turn into a hot war. Indeed, just this week, the Taiwanese defense minister reminded the world that he believes China could attempt a “full-scale invasion” of Taiwan by as soon as 2025.

All these different factors have therefore cemented a growing foreign policy consensus around the idea that China represents the most significant foreign policy threat to the United States. This led the previous and current US administrations to move much more aggressively against unfair Chinese trade practices, push big domestic investments in semiconductor fabrication, and forge new diplomatic partnerships with the UK and Australia on the production of nuclear submarines, to name a few initiatives.   

MSCRS: Today big tech and government are often at odds, yet you write that tech can’t win the cyber battles without government help.  Do you see them aligning and collaboratively dealing with the issues you’ve raised?

 JH: As I write in the book, China has civil-military fusion. We have civil-military confusion. The reason is in no small measure owed to the cultural gap between the tech industry and the policy-making community. Policymakers in Congress are overwhelmingly lawyers; technologists in Silicon Valley are high-school dropouts and engineers. The median age of members in the Senate is 63; the median age of employees at Google and Apple is 31 and 32, respectively. Both communities can look at the same set of policy problems and arrive at very different conclusions because the formative experiences that shape their worldviews are different. I think there are real challenges to public-private public collaborations but I don’t think we should be fatalistic about it. Today, there is a lot of collaboration taking place on narrow tactical things. There is still far too little collaboration taking place on big strategic things. 

Private-public collaboration in the area of intelligence could in theory be very promising but has historically been very difficult due to sticking points around data sharing. On the one hand, our system protects personal privacy and therefore curtails the collection of a company’s private information on citizens by the US government. On the other hand, our antitrust laws also disincentivize the pooling of information between big companies. With that said, there are other promising areas of private-public collaboration. Government procurement is one of those areas. The government’s ability to purchase and procure technologies that it deems strategic can move entire markets and significantly accelerate the commercialization of new emerging technologies. 

MSCRS: What more could be done to strengthen the United States’ hand when it comes to cybersecurity?   

 JH: The approach I favor is to start from the basic strategic principle that Washington will not allow critical digital infrastructure, including information and communications technology companies, to be controlled in whole or in part by the CCP. The executive agencies of the US government, guided by the appropriate laws, can then make a case-by-case determination of whether a particular company meets that definition. As always, the judicial branch would then have the ability to ensure that determinations made by the executive are lawful—and would provide recourse in the event that those determinations are not. 

This approach has several advantages. Rather than focusing on all tech companies indiscriminately, it focuses more narrowly on the subset of underlying actors and malicious foreign governments of concern. This approach is flexible enough to adapt to changing technology and market trends, since it is targeted more at malign behavior than at underlying technology. And importantly, it will also avoid stifling innovation. Companies that would qualify as “national security threats” would almost by definition be large ones, which means this approach would also avoid burdening smaller startups with unnecessary compliance costs. This distinction matters, because fewer startups means fewer jobs, less innovation, and slower growth—all of which translate into a weakened competitive position in the Gray War.