Clash of the Titans: Government vs. Big Tech Over Your Data

Two fencers fencing

TLDR/Key Points

            1. Data are essential to civilization
            2. Governments historically gathered and protected data to preserve power and security
            3. Today the best data are owned by private sector Big Tech, threatening government domain 
            4. Many legal and legislative actions by governments against Big Tech are about data control
            5. The user base must use their purse and ballot power to optimize their best interests

In the Beginning There Was Darkness

As Microsoft’s Brad Smith points out in Tools and Weapons: The Promise and Peril of the Digital Age, ‘Civilization has always run on data’. These data have been largely observational; weather patterns, seasonal relationships to food sources, monitoring threats, like rival neighbors. With language, observational data became both cumulative and trans-generationally transmissible, making it an even more powerful agent of progress. With formal settlement and the rise of civilization, not only were observational data essential, they were increasingly applied towards prediction, particularly for early threat identification, whether internal or external, natural or belligerent. The survival, not only of leadership, but of civilization itself depended on accurate early warning based on the inference of observational data. 

Along the way, data also became controlled and restricted. Only certain persons or classes were permitted privileged data. As Rutger Bregman et al point out in Humankind: A Hopeful History, this had the twin benefits of concentrating power, and providing the element of surprise in threat mitigation. A longstanding agency became a formal profession of spies and secrets, to which only an inner leadership circle was privy. The leader cum sovereign or state, alone, had dominion over these privileged data at pain of death. 

Suddenly See More (…Showed Me I Can)

Lyrics from “Little Shop of Horrors”

Despite the advent of the free press, privileged data remained an essential asset, and the exclusive domain, of the sovereign power. Until it did not. In 1953, Arthur C Clarke, In Childhood’s End, predicted the creation of a personal computing device that one would carry around and would store all of one’s data and important information. The rise of personal computing, particularly the iPhone, the internet and the creation of the worldwide web not only made this so, it took things to a whole new level. Big Tech, including Apple and MS, social media, media conglomerates, online retailers (Amazon) and others began to concentrate vast amounts of data that were never before concentrated either in such multi-national swathes or of such multi-sectoral nature. 

Unlike the relatively static, limited and periodically updated data obtained by governments (eg census, tax revenue), these data were dynamic and updated in realtime. As Brad Smith argues, cloud computing then concentrated these data at a scale and level of detail never before achieved in human history, with redundancy. These were ‘big data’.   

More importantly, these data permitted analytic disciplines, like social mapping and engineering, at global scale. Indeed, some argue that governments can now apply machine learning algorithms to such data to identify vulnerabilities and threats to both themselves and their rivals, and that this underlies the driving force behind state sponsored hacks on big data stores. This could elevate prediction of threats and outcomes to a level of precision that not even the Mentats of Frank Herbert’s Dune could rival. How could any government resist such power?

We wants it! We needs it! We must have the Precious! 

Gollum, The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

If knowledge is power (scientia potentia est), as Thomas Hobbes penned in Leviathan in 1668, then the possessor of such data as these cloud sources contain could possess ‘ultimate power’, and if harnessed and controlled, would perhaps possess the one power ‘to rule them all’. However, there is one  wrinkle. The state does not own these data; they are in the servers of separate private sector enterprises. Irrespective of the style of government, this presents an irresistible target, if for no other reason than competition with other states, and the disadvantage that might accrue if those states get it first.

For liberal democracies, and otherwise open societies, there are the checks and balances, not only between branches of government, but between the distinct domains of the public sector and the free market in which the private sector resides, as well as the balancing test, if civil order is to be preserved as the product of representative government, between sovereign security and public safety vs individual liberty and privacy. For more authoritarian states, the calculus may be simpler, but no less fraught with peril and the threat of delegitimacy and overthrow, as we have seen when populations conclude that authoritarian governments have over-reached or over-stayed.  

The Power of Narrative

The challenge is how to gain access to personal data, freely granted to the private sector, without alarming the public and creating a backlash. Channelling Friedrich Nietzsche, a hero requires a villain. A common enemy is a socially mobilizing and unifying factor, even more so if that villain is opposed to law enforcement, the rule of law, the nation, the people or even common decency and common sense. Governments of every stripe have been adroit at crafting narratives that create villains foreign and domestic, whether individuals, populations and smaller groups, corporations or industries, not to mention other governments. 

One approach is to identify a grievance, often around something costly, obligatory and shared, like fees for access to goods and services, and then link that grievance to an identified enemy. Another is to identify a shared harm, such as criminal or terrorist acts, (child pornography, human trafficking, mass killings) and identify an entity as an obstruction to preventing them. Repeat that narrative; loudly and often. Evidence is optional, but circumstantial evidence will suffice. 

Once the public accepts the narrative as fact, then make a show of intervening on behalf of the people. Identify the targeted object (in this case, access to user data) as what will relieve their suffering and make them safe. Repeat this until it is echoed in the press and by the common folk. If the entity is too powerful to compel, then weaken it. Most often, its most vulnerable spot will be its revenue stream. If the law is an impediment, rescue the people by changing the law – on their behalf. Make sure they understand that by diminishing that revenue stream, the people will benefit (lower costs – who doesn’t love that?). This tack will almost invariably precipitate back channel discussions, concessions and compromises with said entity. 

Then, in public view, and with the full-throated support of the people, wrest control of the objective, in this case, access to the people’s data, for the good of the people. Graciously bow to public applause. Rinse, and repeat. 

Mind you, a government need not seize possession of the data, indeed smart governments will not. Rather, they only require access to it as needed, on their terms, whether or not publicly disclosed.

Next: Past Is Prologue, Again

2 thoughts on “Clash of the Titans: Government vs. Big Tech Over Your Data

  • Least conspiracy minded person I know, Alex Lindsay (with a security clearance that gets him into the Oval Office and the Pope’s office), so you know he’s a member of the club… stated outright that all the focus on big tech is after one thing – access to the phone.

    Personally, I think this ignores the other fact of political life, hitting big tech up for bigger campaign donations. Arguably the biggest businesses on the planet, politicians will be looking to big tech more and more for ‘support’ into the future. For the right donation, we’ll let your company write the big tech governance legislation. Wink.

    1. I don’t disagree with you, gGrant. However, the threats of breakups and compulsory encryption backdoors continue in spite of the robust lobbying industry from Big Tech. So yes, access to the iPhone (and more importantly big data), remain prized targets.

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