NSL Blog

Are we naked with or without data? Edward Snowden asks a big question

July 10, 2013

Excerpt from No Straight Lines

Chapter Five: The big P and little p of transformation: once you have stormed the Bastille, you don’t go back to your day job

As the shape of our world evolves, we are also in political transformation, both in terms of the political relationship between the individual and commercial organisations and the large Politics of how we organise and run our societies. What should government look like in a non-linear world? Are we creating and running the right systems in the right way? How does data change/impact the process of democracy and civil organisation? Refined data is the black gold of the 21st Century.

Data, democracy and identity: Where to start on this particular part of the journey through our non-linear world? The first step must address the issue of data; who would have thought even in 2005, that consumer politics and societal politics would revolve around data, who has it, who owns it and how it is used, combined with the legal frameworks that protect us as citizens.

The recent events around Edward Snowden, Prism, Tempora and Boundless Informant, demonstrate what I meant. In a recent interview with Henry Jenkins I wrote in answer to his question on data:

Data is integral to what comes next, thinking from a perspective of openness and aesthetics of design in that only ugly thoughts bring to bear ugly realities. It may not at first seem a clear connection between data, individual sovereignty and democracy. However once we understand that at high level the commercial world seeks to influence and in some cases coerce political institutions then we have to see them as linked. Or indeed that political ideology seeks to direct the course of political outcomes as is the case in Pennsylvania at the moment and elsewhere where Republicans seeks to make it much harder for various sections of the African-American community to vote in the hope they weaken Obama’s chances of re-election.

In Britain there are attempts by the Government of the day to legislate so that they can access and extract comprehensive, fine-grained covert surveillance of entire populations. All our digital activity: voice, text, Google searches, a level of surveillance that is unprecedented and perhaps pernicious.

The recent phone hacking debacle in the UK in which it was found The News of the World hacked into the voice mail of thousands of people including murdered school girl Milly Dowler to sell tabloid newspapers demonstrating a rubicon has been crossed.

Data whichever way you look at it is about power and everyone is at it: These examples are not democratic, they are harvesting data for personal or state gain. Which is why so many organizations work so hard to fight for the democratic rights of individual sovereignty around the world. It is a battle we must all be part of as 1984 just might be here already. For example John Naughton writes

  • how the N.S.A. has been able to access the e-mails or Facebook accounts or videos of citizens across the world
  • how it has secretly acquired the phone records of millions of Americans
  • how through requests to the compliant and secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (F.I.S.A.) it has been able to bend nine U.S. Internet companies to its demands for access to clients’ digital information

The opportunity of the open society: Whereas if we see shared data as a life enhancing resource that amplifies cooperative capability built upon mutuality rather than extraction of information for individual gain – then there are reasons to be optimistic. The Ordnance Survey, the owner of all the topographical data of the UK, has opened up its data-base under a creative commons license to enable other to build upon the work of others, Ushahidi, the crisis management platform, could not work without data. Open source platforms allow diversity to flourish a default setting of nature, and they are extremely resilient and adaptive.

Like all things it is about asking the right question – is what we create for the collective good – where mutualism and trusted networks of relationships can flourish? The increase in the use of Creative Commons and open innovation demonstrates this can work in commercial and non-commercial contexts – there must rules of engagement but these rules are built upon what I describe as the economics of sharing.

We could go one further with the idea of the open commons region. What data could be released into the public domain to aid local communities be better communities to become, as the Shareable Magazine in San Francisco describes as, ‘shareable cities’. Where a multitude of neighbourhood resources can be shared; car rides, urban farming, skills, culture, civic innovation. Like an initiative called Brickstarter, this open approach enables citizens to submit ideas which then get registered on a website. Then based on ideas submitted to the platform, the service then connects visitors, and invites them into project groups. Project groups have their own project page with more information, upcoming events, feedback, etc. Projects can also form connections to existing city resources and community organizations. In July 2011 the City of New York invited volunteer-led community groups to apply for a Change by Us NYC grant to fund ongoing projects.

So are we naked with or without data? The fact is we are already so immersed in the stuff its impossible to go backwards. The question is about the debate we need to have to helps frame a way forward where we feel comfortable and safe with the data that we share.

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