Data: the new black gold

In the age of dataism, algocracy, social media, over-presence of internet, we allow cookies every day, clicking “ok” on terms and conditions, letting our data be used and sold without consciousness of it. The growth of computing capacities and flows of digital data (called Big Data) has made it possible in recent decades to develop algorithms, optimization methods and State models of public management. These technological frames in which we all evolve is asking millions of ethical and legal questions, but constitute moreover a real political and geopolitical stake in and between States that tends to control the public management and diplomatic relations through circulation, compilation, optimization and detention of information.  Here is a general overview on the contemporary issues in which data play a new central role, role that allows us to speak today about a “new black gold”.

The more you cipher, the more it is difficult to decipher. Indicators, audits, diagnostics to optimize, plan, simplify and increase productivity in the State. In 1992 the book “Reinventing State”  introduce the NPM, New Public Management, meaning the implementation of company management tools into States, as benchmarking (identify processes and concepts used by concurrent to evaluate their potential virtue in the identifier’s own system, in the model of comparative business shape). However, to be compared, we have to quantify, and aren’t we in agreement about the common feature that could be extracted from Western States trends, the love of comparison? In France, so can be pointed out the LVS (Life Value Statistic) that estimate life’s value of one inhabitant: 3 millions of euros. These data are used for example in road infrastructure and public safety equipment to evaluate the worthiness of any work implementation according to the relation between its cost and the value of lives it can save.

But scarier fields of application can enter in stake, as education in USA, where digitalization and rationalization of American schools can be found, to quantify success of students and index salary of prof on this variable. Justice, as well. In the USA, COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions), a program developed by a private company, purports to predict a defendant’s risk of committing another crime. As it was used and spread, we could recognize clearly its limits, due to the algorithmic treatment of sensitive and complex data. It ended up to be a severe violation of the right to a personalized and due process, and the right to be sentenced on an accurate information, since we found out that the system was containing prejudices, being for example biased against African-Americans. And what worse than health field for dataism? In 1970, Robert Fetter (an industrial economy specialist) and his team in Yale University developed the idea of the “hospital factory”, meaning rationalizing and standardizing the medical care of patients, that is today applied in France and created the wave of hospital strikes since few years. Things become more confusing when considering particular kinds of data are being collected and used. In the USA, a firm called Genomic Prediction is applying machine learning algorithms to huge sets of genomic data. Based on this analysis, the firm hopes to predict the cognitive abilities of embryos. In other words, the firm wants to determine how smart a child will be before the child is born. If such technology is adopted, it will fundamentally change the organization of society, basing economic planning on genomic results.

Indicators, indicators, indicators and optimization research of these indicators. But the problem isn’t that much in quantifying, creating these indicators to compile, organize and optimize, but in letting them transcend their function and power, and sometimes self-pilot. The issue would be then also located in the false idea this Data Governance brings: to let us think that the State, its political, economic and social reality can be reduced to simplified data, fixed and indexed to entities. Can we really let complex mathematical formulas override the issues in human fields such as health care? Where goes the root idea of democracy, δεμος the people? Indicators gives the impression that numbers are in State Management governed by natural laws, laws too far from the common to tried to be understood, while every numerical indicator has a political foundation. Data aren’t neutral, and this should be understood to better relativize their potential impact, first at the State scale, and further as an inter-state scale.

Data is indeed transforming the world and its fundamental frames, relations and definitions, but far from me is the idea to deny its utility in all the fields I so far quoted. In a numerical world, frontiers do not exist in the sense we always perceived it so far. The cyberspace, “a global and dynamic domain (subject to constant change) characterized by the combined use of electrons and the electromagnetic spectrum, whose purpose is to create, store, modify, exchange, share, and extract, use, eliminate information and disrupt physical resources” (according to MIT, Harvard and CFR ECIR project) is becoming the main frame of the global exchanges, according to the sensitivity and importance of the content it conveys.

The definition of war and criminality are as well moving concepts in the context of dataism and digitalization of conflicts: the sovereignty of this so-called cyberspace is endlessly in stake, as well as the shapes of military attacks, theft and spying are increasingly taking the shape of hacking. Carbon Blacks 2019 Global Threat Report, released on Wednesday 23 of January 2019, concluded that global governments experienced an increase in cyberattacks during 2018 coming from Russia, China and North Korea, while nearly 60% of all attacks involved lateral movement (progressively moves through a victim’s network as to find their targets, which are typically datasets or critical assets). Another interesting stat from the Carbon Black Global Threat Report, was 2018 saw an approximate $1.8 billion of cryptocurrency-thefts, which underlines the cyber-criminal threat still remains larger than ever.

Cyber activity is an appealing way for nation-states to achieve their objectives for one main reason: it is very difficult to empirically attribute an attack to a specific nation, and thus very unlikely that targeted nations will answer with real-world military action. In recent years, Russia has been extremely busy in the cyber domain, mostly through the activities of two highly active groups from Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency: GRU units 26165 and 74455 (Fancy Bear was recently identified as these two GRU units by the United States) influenced the US’ 2016 presidential election, attacked chemical companies meant to analyze the poisoning of a Russian double agent in the UK, conducted cyberattacks over sports organizations after the doping ban of Russian in Olympic participation… enough to prove the relevance of cyber-criminality, and thus of data, in the today’s geopolitics.

State management is then deeply connected to data on all its fronts, from personal data in social innovation, education, health, to creation of indicators from statistics applied in economy and state administrative management. But data in its larger sense influence as well the relationships between states, and their geopolitical situation by transforming the pressure, actions and crucial information capture means for the guarantee of internal security or the monitoring of a political agenda.

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