There aren’t too many pop-culturally famous scientists in the world today. Among this dwindling but extremely visible group is Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He once theorized that most of mankind’s greatest and most ambitious projects are usually driven and motivated by three forces:
It is quite fascinating to note, that these forces stand outside the influence and the realm of economics or pure human altruism.
In short, making money or helping mankind is usually NOT the reason why massive things have been built or impossible human endeavors, pursued.
Neil deGrasse Tyson goes on to offer a simple yet often forgotten example of NASA’s Apollo program, which led to the Moon landings in 1969.
History, both modern and ancient, is littered with such examples – The Pyramids of Egypt, The Great Wall of China, Rome’s Saint Peter’s Basilica, Angor Wat in Cambodia, and even the Taj Mahal.
War + Militarization = Innovation
The explosive development and progress in automobiles, satellites, medicine, nuclear energy, etc. have often found their origins in war, military expeditions, and defense labs. This may be because in event of a high-stress conflict – amongst countries, armies, and civilizations – the pragmatism of economics is swiftly taken over by the requirements of warfare.
With this in mind, it would be only logical to assume that the same holds true in the case of Data. This trend is now becoming increasingly apparent (though not quite as dominant), with several governments and military-backed innovations and interests gaining prominence.
A case in point is the CIA, which has its own investment capital arm In-Q-Tel, which has been pumping money into some of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies for years. One of its most famous Data startups is Palantir, which was listed on the NYSE in September 2020, and is valued at USD 20 billion. For the CIA, data mining, computing, and surveillance are the keys to the future, and that’s where Palantir comes in.
Data And Our World In Conflict
We live in a world today which seems more violent and unhinged – but statistically, the last 50 years have proven to be the most peaceful time in human civilization, ever. Having said that, we are faced with conflicts materially different in nature, with regards to the intensity, diversity, and impact. Pandemics (Covid-19), human trafficking, massive human migrations, terrorism, expansionism, health, global warming, and unprecedented technological changes are leading to conventional and unconventional wars – where tanks, missiles, and warships may provide scant (if any) cover.
The visualization above represents the number of deaths per 100,000 people since the 1400s. Note how the numbers see a sharp drop in the last 50 years.
It may be argued that unlike what we have seen with infrastructure, space, energy, and manufacturing, Data is an outlier because the private sector has found value in its potential and built defensive positions by recognizing data as an asset, long before Governments even considered it a matter of substance. This is an argument that has been around for the last decade and it has some merit – primarily because when governments understand some “thing”, they find a way to tax, regulate and leverage that “thing”, as soon as some value can be ascribed to the “thing”. In most cases, all three of the above characteristics have been missing.
Over the last 2-3 decades, this ‘Gap-of-interest’, has been filled by the private sector – venture capital funds, large technology behemoths, data brokers, information services giants, and upcoming data startups.
With increasing public understanding regarding the value of personal data, thanks to targeted advertising, cybercrimes, and social media, there has been growing friction between regulators, governments, and private enterprises. Unlike the popular debates of “Good governments Vs Bad capitalists” or “Despotic regimens Vs Virtuous tech”, this issue is NOT black & white but is spread across the vast greyness of a fast-changing global reality.
Now add conflict, wars, geo-political risks, financial crimes, and terrorism to this, and it quickly becomes apparent that governments and democratic institutions will sooner or later become a major regulating factor.
How do we know this? Because such data-centric regulations and agencies have a long-standing presence and precedence. Some of these are:
- The Census – Arguably the largest and most critical data exercise carried out by governments is the national census. The Babylonian Empire carried out their census in 3800 BCE. The purpose was roughly the same back then as it is today – to count people, understand their background, assets, location, etc. to inform and direct policy.
- Anti-Money Laundering & Terrorist Financing – Post the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the world has made massive progress and structural changes in the way that banks and financial institutions deal with the threat of money laundering. While technology, systems, regulations, and methodologies have evolved, the base requirement of the global AML/CFT superstructure is based on the access, storage, and usage of data – about customers and transactions. This global superstructure is a direct result of government and regulatory requirements, nudging private enterprise to deal with data, technology, and information, in a certain manner.
- Data Localization – The latest trend and push towards securing the personal data of citizens has led to various regulations as well as requiring organizations to set up local data centers, cloud, and other storage infrastructure. Governments have therefore changed the face of the open internet which is global but has now become local in setup. This finds a parallel in the banking norms and policies of certain countries, which do not allow citizens to transact freely across borders, to regulate the value of currency and investments.
Governments – Getting Into the (Data) Act
Around the world, various governments are now getting into the act of making new regulations, taking action, and most importantly ‘leveraging the value of data’ to take action on organizations, individuals, and even other countries.
“The order was due to national security concerns emerging from China’s data-sharing law that obliges companies to distribute the data received by them with Chinese intelligence agencies. The Indian government has banned nearly 267 Chinese mobile apps.”
The European Union
“The European Commission unveiled its Data Governance Act, a highly-anticipated piece of legislation that looks to rethink the European Union’s approach to data and boost its ability to compete in the global tech marketplace.”
“After Ant set the listing price for its stock, investors stampeded to place orders. More than five million people applied in Shanghai alone.
Instead, China sent a different message: No private business gets to swagger unless the government is on board with it.”
The United States of America
“Several members of Congress and advocacy groups have already drafted versions of a federal data protection law, suggesting that if Biden’s administration is willing to make this a priority, it should be able to find the necessary support.”
If one looks carefully, certain major economies have clearly moved ahead towards Weaponizing Data. Of course, this is an art already practiced by bad actors (hackers, cybercriminals) and rogue regimes (North Korea, Iran, etc.)
What is the “Weaponization of Data”?
Definition – When organizations, governments, and non-state actors, leverage, secure, build and/or hoard Personal Data, Data Assets or Databases of critical information, which are owned, purchased, managed, or acquired (legally or illegally) to create defensive or offensive advantages or for conflict, war, social instabilities, economic crises/blockades or misinformation.
In short – When data is used for targeted chaos or defensive security rather than just for business or economic activity.
What May Happen If The World Decides To Weaponize Data En Masse?
As with any futuristic scenarios, there are probabilities, possibilities, and realities – and even the best study of these may not lead to an accurate picture. But one can look to the past for help and to the present, for clues.
A relevant example may be to look at how governments and multi-lateral agencies went into overdrive with nuclear technology and materials. One could make the argument, that the world is today, far more concerned about hackers, cyber heists, and data snooping than about seeing a mushroom cloud outside their window.
Combine this with the fact that War (or conflict) + Militarization often leads to rapid Innovation, and we may get to evidence the following trends if most or all major countries, take the path of not only SECURING but subsequently WEAPONIZING data.
- Enhanced Regulation – We will see more laws, regulators, and specialist agencies to deal with data and related matters, especially considering the technical, academic, abstract, and often esoteric nature of Data and related technologies. With regulatory paraphernalia, will come fines, penalties, and possibly criminal actions/sanctions – just like in the case of financial crimes. Finally, this may lead to creating the premise, moral/legal rationale, and foundation for state actions on non-state actors and other countries.
- Value Determination & Taxation – As noted in the article, it is important to determine the value of a “thing”, to adequately regulate it. Else it would be difficult to determine the value of fines, severity of legal actions, and the proportionality of reactions. Hence, we may see governments quickly moving to establish a framework on how to value data. This may naturally lead to the development of official rates, markets, and trade – possibly leading to taxation on generated revenues.
- Global Rules Of Engagement – In parallel to the legal and value determination frameworks, countries may be (or already are) building multi-lateral agencies, norms, agreements, etc. which will set global ground rules for everyone to adhere to, so that the value of personal or critical data may be secured, while enabling investors and global companies to deal/leverage them in building products and services. This may happen under the aegis of forums or inter-governmental organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), which was set up in the mid-90s with a similar mandate for international trade.
- Accelerated Innovation – With the global ground rules set, regulations in place, and value determination frameworks defined, and due to the “Factor of Fungibility” of certain data, there will be a natural impetus to innovation, R&D, and intellectual property development.
- Real-World Conflict – The above trends have been evidenced with patents, nuclear energy, intellectual property, land, mineral resources, etc., and have invariably, led to the threat of real-world conflict. In the case of Data, this may seem far-fetched, primarily because it is difficult for us to fathom how something intangible and virtual, can lead to havoc, destruction, and even death. But the surging trade wars between China and the US, the burgeoning cyber-security market, and the growing role of information warfare has shown, that this may happen sooner rather than later.