The Data Wars Are as Serious as the Ones with Guns

In the 1600s, we fought spice wars.  In the 1700s, we fought freedom wars — over-representation, taxation, and piracy.  In the 1800s, we fought slavery wars.  In the 1900s and 2000s, we fought oil wars.

Today, we're in the midst of a data war.

Like most wars, there are psychological operations.  Reinforcement and other psychological techniques are used to drive increasing use and engagement, drawing incredible amounts of information from users.  Nudges, "dark" and "light," are used to guide user decisions in directions determined by "wise ones," leading mankind into a utopia described in bright colors.

I describe the shape and worldview behind this worldview in Unintended Dystopia.

Data are withheld to shape the beliefs of those on the battlefield.  Data releases are carefully timed to either increase or decrease their impact.  False data are intermixed with genuine, sowing confusion and making it impossible to tell the false from the true.

There are legal aspects, as well.  Governments are using their power to constrain the flow and storage of data to gain an economic advantage (often in the name of privacy — but like all other casualties in times of war, privacy is a much-misused idea).

At least from one perspective, Net Neutrality can be seen as content providers (like Google and Facebook) using the state's power to prevent edge providers (like AT&T and Comcast) from collecting and using data about their users.  Privacy was invoked in these legal battles, but no one bothered to ask, "What am I keeping private from whom?"  Content providers, after all, still consume a very high percentage of the traffic on the internet.  Net Neutrality certainly isn't hiding user information from these big content providers.

When Net Neutrality proved challenging to implement globally, many content providers turned to technical aspects of data warfare: end-to-end encryption.  Once again, however, we are not asking from whom end-to-end encryption keeps data private.  If the two end points are the user and a large-scale content provider, the only companies kicked out of the data feeding trough are edge providers.

Domain Name System over Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol (DoH) can be seen as another instance of large-scale content providers cutting the "middleman" out of the data game by shifting the technology (once again in the name of privacy).  Those who own the Domain Name servers can still collect everything where users go on the internet.  Moving name lookups to the browser instead of the operating system allows Google to use Chrome (65% of the market) to gain control over where name queries are sent and processed.  In a parallel move, mobile operating systems are also moving to DoH.

As with all other wars, corporate interests make money, and pirates try to eat profits from the edges.  Data brokers commercialize user data at scale, even some of the most private — like medical data.  The pirates of this world are hackers who execute large-scale data breaches every week.

At least some of these pirates are — like ships bearing letters of marque — state-sponsored, or at least are provided some form of "don't look here" protection by state actors.

This war is not entirely in cyberspace, either — there are definite geographic and national aspects.

For instance, where data are stored, and hence under whose national laws the data reside, is a significant issue in privacy legislation.  Additionally, the internet is quickly being physically fragmented and centralized by large-scale providers (see here, here, and here, for instance).  This kind of centralization makes it ever harder for new services to compete with old, centralizes data in a few large nation-states, and concentrates the physical power of data in a small set of hands.

Having physical control of the data and data transport is an important component of winning a data war.  Note how many large-scale content providers now own undersea cables.

Kai-Fu Lee argues in AI Superpowers that physical access to large quantities of data is critical to developing effective A.I. systems.  Gathering data from ever larger physical regions increases the power of the data-gatherer, much like how controlling more extensive hunting grounds improves the odds of a successful hunt for a hunter/gatherer tribe.

Taking physical ground is not limited to larger areas — there is also a race to the micro.  Controlling the physical space of the home through automation and the body through tracking fitness are critical geographic elements of data wars.

Like most modern wars, these data wars have multiple fronts.

Of course, there are large-scale fronts among nations, companies, and hacker groups.  There is also a battlefront between users and "all the other players," where just about everyone tries to find more ways to invade user privacy to mine the raw material of the planned digital utopia.

This final front, against users, is asymmetrical.  Companies use complex, multipage data usage agreements to dissuade users from actually reading them.  Some companies just flat-out lie about the data they collect and how they are used.

The one thing that's different about this war from every previous war is most users don't think — or understand — its nature.  Because it's not a "shooting war," or even a war with an immediate threat of shooting, and because the largest, most influential organizations in our world rely on average users to mine the value they're fighting with, it's not often reported.

Most users are like people living on the edge of a battlefield, trying to keep their heads down and minimize personal damage.  "I don't care if some company knows all about me; I'm not all that interesting."

The question we need to ask is, if no one cares about data about you, why are there online wars being waged over them?

Image via Pixnio.

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