17 April 2017
The first killer application for big data neither belonged to Google nor to Amazon but to the National Security Agency (NSA). The first foreign policy and major international relations disruptions were triggered by Edward Snowden's revelations. The consequence of this disruption would not only affect international diplomacy but also the development of international markets and technologies. Big data is about power and predictive analytics in business as it is in signal intelligence. When we had a major disruption like the Edward Snowden affair, what we noticed is this kind of ‘infection’ which is manifested nowadays by the growing mistrust and skepticism that the public attaches to their government's infringements of their privacy and personal data online.
The most likely political outcome of the Snowden affairs at this point for governments in the MENA region is ‘nothing’ which is frustrating for the advocates of human rights and civil liberties who have brought court cases in the major capitals of the world. Also, it is demoralizing for people in a democratic society that trust their government to manage power responsibly. Realpolitik will be a worthy opponent of idealism in the new realm of big data. Are the consequences as manageable as they appear? In the short term, governments thought that the heat of Edward Snowden's revelations is fading away but in the long term, consequences will not be in favor of governments' interests.
A Modernization of Privacy and Security in the Digital Age
The message that governments sent to their people after the Snowden revelations is: "Be skeptical of technology and governments and when you see the two of them combined, be afraid". That is not a message which is in the interest of governments who are perceived by their citizens as not practicing what they are preaching when it comes to human rights, the rule of law, good governance and accountable institutions.
There is a booming market for big data with the advent of Internet of Things (IoT). I presume all of us are still carrying mobile phones despite the fact that we know that our small connected devices are beeping and blinking tracking devices which make it easy for surveillance agencies to collect, process and use our Metadata without a judicial requisition or a prior consent from the end user. We are all still using personal communication over digital networks and our children are documenting their lives over social networks. We are buying things on the Internet and few of us are bothering to use end to end encryption. This is a vexing paradox that demonstrates that we are not as scared as we seem to be of the Snowden affair or as we say we are. Why don't people change their behavior online? I can think of three reasons:
First reason: I don’t know, I haven’t read about the NSA, I don’t understand how the Internet works and I don’t think that the technology I‘m using leaves trackable records of what I do.
Second reason: I know but I don’t care. These are the people who decided that the culture of the exhibition on the Internet is something to be celebrated. Because they personally have nothing to hide at the moment, they are willing to trade liberty for security.
Third reason: I know what the NSA is doing, I do care, but what can I do about it? Most people will fall under category number three which means that end users know what is happening to their personal information online. They don’t like it but what can they do about it?
Technology cannot be ripped out of end users' lives, it is becoming too integrated into personal daily consumption. Even if end users don’t trust that governments will protect their privacy online, they do continue to use the Internet on a day to day basis. I call this online behavior ‘normative cynicism’. Five years ago, the newspapers were full of headlines about the Twitter Revolution. At that time, there was a deeply held conviction that the Internet (Social media) was a liberatory technology and a decentralized communication infrastructure that lowered the barriers not only for an easier entry into the market of commerce but also for IoT, IPv6 and ideas of entrepreneurship through innovation as well as for regime change in the Middle East and North African region.
The Shift from Liberatory Twitter Revolution to Normative Cynicism
We have a shift from liberatory technology to a perception that the Internet is a technology of social control and political manipulation that occurred in a time span of five years. This is a Hobbesian view of the Internet. Over the long term, this means the loss of faith in the principle of democratic government both domestically and abroad. If governments do not manage legitimacy responsibility for how power is operated online, this will mean a loss of faith in technology.
I don't think you will toss your mobile phone when you will finish reading this article. However, you are going to be more hesitant to adopt the next generation of technologies. As a consequence, this will slow the pace of innovation. The power of the Internet as Soft power asset in the world is not the Twitter revolution or the creation of the European Google. The power of the Internet in the world is the cumulative effects of day to day access to information, communication networks, and markets for Connecting and Enabling the Next Billion(s) of people through new rules of legitimacy for Internet governance. People want to know that power on the Internet is applied in a legitimate way, through a multistakeholder consensus and that what can be done and what cannot be done remains under control.
Solving the Problem of Government Legitimacy through Transparency, Oversights on Espionage and Extraterritorial Access to Data
Transparency: People aren‘t upset that law enforcement and intelligence agencies are doing their job to protect public safety and national security, they just want to know a little more how surveillance practices are happening. Governments can increase transparency without affecting the functioning of their services by harmonizing transparency policies so that traditional IG stakeholders have faith in one another.
Oversight on government espionage: There must be conduct rules and monitoring of governments, especially those that that claim they don’t practice espionage, and sanctions have to be carried out for those who do conduct industrial espionage over the Internet.
Extraterritorial access to data: Can the US government access Google and get your data as a non-US citizen? Any company located outside of the US is required to handle data no matter what it is in the world and no matter who it belongs to and that’s what most disruptive for other governments in the word which means that the problem of personal data and privacy can only be solved politically.
The issue of privacy and data protection cannot be solved in the market by asking companies whether they are breaking the law of the country that they incorporated in or the country where they are doing business. Based on the aforementioned recommendation, big data should be considered as a progressive technology, not a technology that is used to generate profit over human rights, online security, privacy and the protection of citizens' personal data which is being used as a form of commerce in the online marketplace for the private sector and public sector alike. Only then we can move away from the notion of the Hobbesian Internet which is not consistent with the multistakeholder values of Internet governance.
Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez, Senior Policy Analyst (iGmena)