Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier, published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2016

As of now, there are more than 3 billion users of the Internet, making up to almost 40% of the world’s population. The proliferation of personal devices led to an explosion of secondary data and leaps in computational power meant their collection and analysis would only be cheaper by the days. We’ve all heard the same story: Individual privacy corroded by corporate interest.

Data hoarders: Collection before analysis

In his book ‘Data and Goliath’, Bruce Schneier, a world famous internet security guru (dubbed by the Economist) made three points on the applications of Big Data:

  1. The degree of surveillance went beyond of what we had imagined;
  2. The role of big data in surveillance;
  3. What can ordinary people do in the face of big data

He argued that shrinking cost in the digitization and storage of information spells significant growth of the commercial viability of data collection and surveillance. Secondary data is hoarded regardless of any immediate value, then funneled through a multitude of algorithms to determine and maximize their utility. This mundane process, too, can be a form of surveillance. As Piero Scaruffi, author of “A History of Silicon Valley” once pointed out a crucial context regarding the application of Big Data:

“I think that “Silicon Valley” should be renamed “Data Valley”. Many analysts, for example IMS, forecast that there will be 20-30 billion web-connected devices by 2020, generating 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data each day. This means that we will be producing more data every year than in the previous 200,000 years.

In the business sector, corporations comb through secondary data of their customers (and potential ones) to compile consumers profiles and to formulate marketing strategies; For instance, Schneier pointed out that there are ‘sense networks’ that collect personal information through smartphones, compiling them into personal files for sale.

In the realm of politics, however, Big Data formed the backbone of mass-surveillance; with the book delineating ways social media platform gathers users’ data, ranging from favorite colors and hobbies to income level and political views. In 2016, Whatsapp announced its plan to share its user information with Facebook, all while the latter was exposed of supplying users’ information to multiple governments three years ago. The convenience brought by the internet comes with political implications that clashes with our existing notions towards democracy.

Surveillance as diplomacy

As lone-wolf attacks phased out organized terrorism, their looming threats legitimizes mass-surveillance as a part of public service and international collaboration in intelligence gathering as a branch of diplomacy.

In fact, Schneier pointed out that while Big Data and surveillance are often parts of domestic politics and international relations, yet are seldom regulated under existing legislation. In 2013, Edward Snowden’s exposé of NSA’s PRISM programs caused an uproar among the international community, with the German government summoning the American ambassador for an explanation after realizing their chancellor were on the NSA’s watchlist. Heads of states were tapped to maintain America’s information (by extension, economic) lead, which is why Glenn Greenwald, the journalist that helped Snowden disclose the United States and British global surveillance programs, described the program as a form of “industrial espionage”.

Collaboration in surveillance can also be diplomatic bridgeheads towards further partnerships and foundations of long-term alliances. An agreement on electronic intelligence between China and Iran in 2013 paved the way towards closer military ties. Another example is the Five Eyes league, an intelligence alliance established in 1941. Originally formed by the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zeland to facilitate alliance among Allied states, Denmark, Spain, and Italy joined the fray with the rising threat of terrorism and the alliance expanded accordingly into Nine Eyes, and then Fourteen Eyes. 

The Faustian Price of Singapore’s Smart City

Schneier’s work juggled between the obvious merits and the obscure price of big data and allow us to see a bigger picture of Big Data. Technological innovations, especially those promising immediate commercial prospect, were often showered with impetuous praises. While Singapore was justifiably lauded as the poster-boy of ‘smart city’ with its advents in FinTech and digital infrastructure, the ties between Singapore’s Smart Nation program and its authoritarian grip were seldom mentioned. 

Singapore’s stringent grip, however, threatens to choke out societal freedom and discourage spontaneous innovations and risk-taking, both of which are crucial to economic development in a digital age. “The Social Laboratory”, an article published on Foreign Policy in 2014, delineated governmental applications of Big Data in Singapore and how it utilizes Big Data in mass-surveillance to “engineer a more harmonious society”.

Singapore is pushing for Big Data to counter the threat of terrorism, a mounting concern for South East Asia; Valuing national stability, the public may grow tolerant to this new-form of non-intrusive yet all-encompassing mass surveillance. The true danger of Big Data is its mundanity. It allows a softer form of police state, one without informers and secret police, but with silicon and convenience. 

I would like to conclude this review with an excerpt of Wu Yi-Jui’s firsthand experience with Big Data in Singapore:

“There is no way to know how tight is the government’s grip on the personal information of its people. I still remember though, when I first used my cell phone to call a cab, every driver would call me Mr. Clauson. The drivers explained to me that my cell phone number might have once been used by a Mr. Clauson. I didn’t think much of this at first, but after a few months, my full name from official papers would appear on screens beside driver’s seat. Apparently, my personal information was shared with the Human Resources Department, Taxi system, and other administrative units or corporations.” (Translated from So Hot, Yet So Cold: A Polar Singapore, by Wu Yi-Jui)

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