Rise of the Techtarian: Seeing Through the Big Data PRISM

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13th Jun 2013

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Tipping points have a way of sneaking up on us. One reason they catch us by surprise is because they represent a confluence of inputs that until a certain moment appeared disconnected, but change the landscape in such a way that their individuality later seems silly - and their merged impact overwhelming.  
 
Such is the case with big data and its uses.  Recent revelations about PRISM, (the US government's tiered computer data monitoring system) have upset citizens in the US and around the world not just because they verified what many already suspected, but because they mark a change in the known relationships between Internet data, national interests, surveillance, government, individual rights, and globalisation.  What is at stake is nothing less than our definitions around freedom, and the threat is much less about what's already been done than about the pathway it creates - a blueprint for techtarian states.
 
What is techtarian? The use of technology to create a pervasive system of state-based awareness. It remains to be seen how techtarianism will manifest in reality, and much of the result will depend on which nation-states control these outcomes and how citizens shape techtarian confines.
 
To understand the techtarian, lets start with PRISM, one of the first verified manifestations of this trend.  To get the real story of PRISM one must first understand something about global geo-politics and the crucial importance of moral high ground, which the United States has compromised in its pursuit of what can be charitably referred to as the country's best interests and protection.  In short, they had to do it.
 
The US decision to collect and monitor as much data as possible, (regardless of suspicion let alone warrant) is a response to a kind of information arms race that has been silently underway since the dawn of the Internet, not a thinly veiled attempt to counter terrorism or an attempt to hijack kitten pics. It is a response to China, and to other nations.
 
China has made no secret of its desire to observe not just the communications of its own people but anyone using the Web, to protect "harmony and stability", in its National Interest.  Inside China, this manifests as eavesdropping (sometimes even in taxis), wiretapping, computer hacking, hard-drive downloads and armies of web monitors researching, scrubbing and otherwise shaping domestic discourse- a fact of life by which the global business community is well aware.  
 
This occurs to such an extent that smart companies require their employees to bring disposable computers when visiting the mainland, and regularly check computers for tracing hardware following visits.  China aims to be the first techtarian state, and has ambitions to monitor whatever it can, simply because no one can stop the state from doing so.  A point that is underestimated by the West is not just adaptability of Chinese industry, but the Communist Party's ability to adapt to changing requirements. It may turn out that these capabilities cause little physical harm, but do help to cement power.  While the party is inherently neither good or evil, its primary function has been stability and prosperity, serving the aggregate needs of the population.  Full scale monitoring and the iron crush of dissent are simply tools in maintaining these aims. Of course, yesterday's aims may not be tomorrow's aims.
 
This puts the US and Europe into something of a pickle.  You don't know what you don't know, and if China is intent on knowing, then the US and Europe must know too.  In an information economy, lack of information, even slower information, is the difference between survival and demise.  In reality, this manifests via true tales like this:
 
Last fall, a senior executive at a major mining company in London received a personalised email from his boss, asking him to edit notes for an upcoming board meeting.  He opens the file and sees it is corrupted, so deletes it and forgets about it. Four months later, a message pops onto his laptop saying "File Transfer Complete" and he calls IT - which later confirm that the document included a trojan worm that had slowly been sending out every piece of data held inside the company over a period of months to an unknown source.  The sophisticated theft of the entire knowledge base of the company was never revealed, and the company doesn't even know who received it, but they do know that certain competitors seem to have a lot more information about their bids for mines and resources across the developing world than they should.  
 
This is the world we live in now, and at the nation-state level it is the real reason why efforts like PRISM exist - to lead - or at least keep up - in the global state information awareness race.
 
As a covert operation, the ability for individuals to shape this discourse is over. Regardless of terrorist threats or the actions of a few, PRISM is really about state level competition for information on a global basis.
 
The real danger of this drift toward Techtarian states is deeply individual.  While the US right blabbers on about their right to bear assault weapons and the left complain about the follies of big finance, the right to secure data was eclipsed before it even became an issue. And it is the real issue - because without this, everything else is secondary in the digital age.  On the other hand, the consequences of the US and Europe not following a complete data mining strategy imply an unacceptable lag against the ambitions of other states which will never grant such rights to their people.
 
In this way we see the true dangers of open markets and an outcome few have voiced.  What if State Based Capitalism, in which the State is the primary agent of economic activity, is able to outperform Democratic Capitalism?  The writing is on the wall - as China funds its state based corporations to buy whatever it can at whatever price with government support, and as US companies fall out of deals because they can't afford to compete with only private capital, or because the world no longer trusts the security of their systems. We now enter a period where economic values other than those of the West begin to win out.  As economic power and access to resources wane, so to does Western ability to resist employing the very same tactics to preserve those resources.  As such, the Techtarian state becomes an evolutionary imperative for all, and this in turn undermines Democratic Capitalism at its very core.
 
Those new winning values, combined with big data, spell dark times ahead for individual rights.
 
With the revelation of PRISM, the wheels are in motion and the vehicle is in view.  Nations no longer have to pretend they won't pursue their wildest data ambitions, and everyone else is suddenly thrust into a world of doubt.  To what ends will information be used? Who will know? On a global basis, what right does China have to monitor the communications of a Belgian talking to a South African about a deal in Brasil?  What right does the US have to similar information?  Brasil? South Africa? If Russian policy uses that information to aid state based institutions, how long will it be before others do the same, in a simple effort to compete?  
 
The inability of the US to protest this activity given recent revelations around PRISM means that only Europe has the moral right to protest this slide toward disaster.  Unfortunately, that's not very comforting, given Europe's competing loyalties and inability to lead on anything at all, especially something as grave as this.
 
So if Techtarian states are inevitable, what can people do to shape their outcome? How can we make sure a Techtarian state acts in the best interests of its individual citizens, and not in pursuit of its own ends?  Perhaps the only way is to fight with transparency, and to build checks and balances that hold those in power to public account.  If big data can be used to spy, it can be used to reveal. If it can be used to subjugate, it can be used to liberate, and if it can be used to crush, it can be used to nurture.  Figuring out those functions is the urgent duty of everyone in tech, and they will have a great impact on how pervasive technology comes to finally be used.