The rise of Big Data—the vast digital output of daily life, including data Google and Facebook collect from their users and convert into advertising dollars—is now a matter of national security, according to some policymakers. The fear is that China is vacuuming up data about the U.S. and its citizens not just to steal secrets from U.S. companies or to influence citizens but also to build the foundation of technological hegemony in the not-too-distant future. Data—lots of it, the more the better—has, along with the rise of artificial intelligence, taken on strategic importance…
Broad fears of technological hegemony may be overblown, some policy experts say. And harsh measures against China could alienate allies and trigger a rash of similarly harsh measures by counties abroad toward U.S. tech firms.
In any case, the U.S. is in an exceedingly weak position to lead a moral crusade for the sanctity of data. The concept of harvesting clicks, text, internet addresses and other data from unsuspecting citizens and exploiting them for commercial and national-security ends was invented in the halls of the National Security Agency, the CIA and the tech startups of Silicon Valley. Facebook (now Meta), Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple currently lead a vast industry based on trading and compiling user data. Taking measures to protect the data of American citizens from the ravages of Silicon Valley would go a long way to protecting them from China, too. Any measures directed solely against China would likely be ineffective because vast troves of consumer data would still be available for purchase on secondary data markets…
Whatever the case, some suggest the world is already moving inexorably towards a bipolar digital world—a move that will only accelerate as the burgeoning race for AI dominance between China and America picks up steam.
So data becomes just another area in which powerful nations fight? Does the data with all of its potential and pitfalls simply become a national instrument of power?
There could be other options here. However, it might be hard to know whether these are preferable compared to states wanting to control big data.
- In the hands of users. Move data toward consumers and individuals rather than in the hands or accessed by nations and corporations.
- In the hands of corporations. They often generate and collect a lot of this data and then operate across nations and contexts.
- In the hands of some other neutral actors. They may not exist yet or have much power but could they in the future?
This bears watching because this could go well or not and would have wide consequences either way.