Out on the Rim

It became, not unexpectedly, the year in which Friedrich Hayek came back to haunt us.

“When security is understood in too absolute a sense, the general striving for it,” he noted, “far from increasing the chances of freedom, becomes the gravest threat to it.”

In January, a $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill was passed in the US. Among its 2,702 pages was a proposed safety measure for cars built after 2026 removing operational control from the occupant via a vehicle kill switch mandated for automobile manufacturers that would “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

The open system enables third parties to remotely access the data at any time according to an algorithm in which the driver has little to no control.

It was, somewhat understandably, described as a “privacy disaster,” but not in the same sense of the one that gave the world Kim Kardashian.

The agents behind this civil liberties obscenity don’t work in the entertainment industry. Putting aside the wider implications on freedom of movement, one is left to reflect on how the same technology might be used, for instance, on the Cadillacs found in the presidential motorcade?

It’s a difficult concept to fathom just alone for reasons of national security – there’s that word again.

When it comes to matters of digital integrity 2022 has taught us there are more than a few limitations that a mere four years are not bound to rectify.

Highly ambitious roll outs in unconvincing timeframes are, as the Tesla Cybertruck keeps reminding us, nothing new.

If you’re into cosplay and armoured personnel carriers, you’re probably a member of the World Economic Forum with an unhealthy obsession with James Cameron’s Aliens. What’s more, to judge by the 1.3 million others who have made a downpayment on the Cybertruck, you’re not alone.

Just in time for Christmas – next year – the oft-delayed Tesla Cybertruck is set to complete its “final lap” as Elon Musk put it in an investor conference call last month.

One can’t help but guess, like a kid in front of the bowl of jellybeans, as to the number of semiconductors that will go into its first phase of production. Spoiler alert: heaps.

Toyota, it would appear, could well do with some. As of November, the leading car brand in the wake of widespread microchip shortages has been forced to ration ‘smart’ keys to its customers, meting out one per car in Japan with something similar on the cards for the North American market.

Such is the deficiency in chip supply, the automaker has resorted to these provisional measures aimed at delivering cars to customers as quickly as possible.

Up to 14 different models will be affected. For leading-edge industries, where semiconductors are the single most important technology, the situation is delicately balanced. A modern diesel-powered prime mover can utilise up to 500 semiconductors, a tenth of what will go into an electric heavy vehicle.

As a nation, with some niche exceptions, Australia, according to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is almost entirely dependent on foreign-controlled microchip technology, making it increasingly vulnerable to global supply-chain shortages, shutdowns and disruptions.

“Such occurrences have become all too common,” observe authors of the report Alex Capri and Professor Robert Clark, “either because of events such as the COVID-19 pandemic or because of other governments’ attempts to weaponise supply chains for geopolitical reasons.”

I would argue the former falls under the latter category, regardless.

Policymakers, all the same, according to the ASPI report, “must treat semiconductors as a vital public good, almost on par with other basic necessities such as food and water supplies and reliable electricity — a reality that would become immediately apparent in a time of international crisis resulting from, for example, wars or natural disasters.”

Microchip manufacturing for the entire world is concentrated in East Asia.

The main volume percentages are split between Taiwan (64), South Korea (16), and China (10). To conceive, develop and execute a national plan enabling us the capacity to build and compete in the semiconductor space the ASPI report outlines four overarching objectives.

One of them is geared around leveraging our security partnerships and alliances like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, AUKUS and the Five Eyes network. It’s a bold plan to enmesh our industry in the global value chain.

The mere mention of intelligence agencies, working as a cudgel against our sovereign vulnerabilities, however, doesn’t make me feel any more secure. You?

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