A tech arms race is pitting states against their citizens

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A generation ago, autocrats could still hope to maintain control of information within their countries and to limit the ability of citizens to communicate with one another and the outside world. Today, people carry gadgetry that allows them to send ideas hurtling across borders, to connect with one another as never before.

Satellite television, mobile phones with cameras, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have empowered the individual. Recent headlines remind us that the state is developing new tools of its own. But the decision by former US Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward Snowden to expose the National Security Agency’s data dragnets demonstrates that state-sponsored surveillance may prove as difficult a secret to keep as any other in an open society.

A battle has now been joined. China still uses its “great firewall”, a system designed to monitor and filter internet traffic, but even the hardest of hardliners knows that China’s online conversation is expanding much faster than Beijing’s ability to manage it. Russian, Saudi and Iranian officials try to censor but they cannot return to the day when most messages with political content were broadcast from a regime-run radio or TV tower.

So states are learning that management of communications traffic need not depend only on censorship. It is more effective to use the flow of information than to block it, and governments are countering the revolution in communication technology with a “data revolution” that allows officials to move from defence to offence in their battle with perceived threats.

In short, the traffic data and content produced by the world’s emails, online searches and purchases, and the electronic signatures from all those texts and tweets, can be aggregated in real time. Those with access to that data – and the technology to use it – have captured something valuable.

Our use of online technology – whether for storage, communications or commerce – reveals more of who we are, what we think and what we want. Providing those who treat us as consumers with so much data can compromise our privacy. As the 2012 US presidential election proved, when both sides used it to identify potential voters, big data has now become an essential element of sophisticated political campaigns.

But it is a different matter when that information is passed to states, to those who think of us as voters, opinion-makers or troublemakers.

There is nothing inherently evil about big-data analysis. It can help bureaucrats meet the needs of citizens. It can help with the design of systems that improve public health, help street traffic flow more freely, target infrastructure investment, fight crime and protect national security. But who draws the line between activists and criminals? Or terrorists? Or potential terrorists?

Each government will use this material in its own way. There will be differences of opinion on how this information should be used, but all are vulnerable to abuses of power. As states become more deeply involved in data collection, officials will want maximum control of everything they think might be relevant for (what they consider) national security, in particular.

Google has endured multiple attacks on the Gmail accounts of suspected dissidents inside China, attacks engineered (or, at least, condoned) by Chinese authorities. But, as the NSA surveillance disclosures remind us, all governments are analysing data to protect against all sorts of threats.

Around the world, the race is on between a communications revolution that empowers the individual and a data revolution designed to protect the state. This contest will play out in different countries in different ways. Not all will prove effective in harvesting data; some will perform as poorly here as in other areas of governance.

But larger and more efficiently run governments will have much more success. We can’t yet know how this race will end, but it is a mistake to assume the state can’t hold its own for years to come. We can say with complete confidence that this competition has only just begun.

The writer is president of Eurasia Group and author of ‘Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World’

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