Data has paralleled oil in becoming an intensely political national security issue

Data has paralleled oil in becoming an intensely political national security issue
© The Hill photo illustration

If oil was the black gold of the 20th century, data has taken over that mantle in the 21st. And just like oil in the last century, data is becoming intensely political. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “whoever acquires and controls” data will attain “hegemony.” How did Information come to run our world? The analogy with the geopolitics of oil is suggestive.  

Oil as an industry began in the mid-19th century when kerosene became a cheap fuel to light homes, and gasoline to run cars. It flourished once Ford produced affordable cars. But it was the worldwide war that established oil as the key determining factor in global politics.

Data followed a parallel path. It began as a by-product of the internet. Yet, the invention of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep machine learning turned data into the key factor for innovation.

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Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks opened the window on what data could be accessed. That drove Europe to try to close those opportunities, but also had the second-order effect of demonstrating to many nations how far behind they were in getting access to data with national security implications.

Brexit and the 2016 U.S. election graphically showed how manipulating data could affect democratic systems. China’s “A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” released in July 2017, alerted the world to China’s hegemony ambitions. As a result, data moved to center-stage in 21st century geopolitics, becoming entwined with national strategy, security, power and global politics, just as oil did a century before.  

At first, the major powers controlled oil through their companies, not so different from how the “big five (Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon) dominated the web. Then, the absence of oil-producing countries from negotiations bred conflict. Similarly, today, as countries awaken to value of data, they are adopting measures to safeguard the ownership and control of their nations’ data.  

Just as Mexico and other producing countries regarded oil as national patrimony and so limited the investments of foreign companies, today, many countries are erecting virtual boundaries along their national borders. China, Russia, India, Australia, and Canada have adopted data localization provisions in order to increase control over their citizens or residents’ data. These prevent the transmission of data outside the country, require a copy of the data to be stored within the country or tax the export of data while enforcing the national data security laws. 

As it was earlier for oil, the geo-economic value of data is an incentive for states to mount cyberattacks and industrial espionage against rival countries and their companies. Moreover, states use AI, data and persuasive technology to influence other countries citizens to an unprecedented scale and effect. War is no longer on a battlefield; rather it is societies versus societies.

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However, for all their similarities, data is not predestined to follow the fate of oil. Oil was limited and sparse, leading to zero-sum strategies and vicious cycles of confrontation. Once abundant sources of alternative energy were discovered, black gold was diminished in its appeal. In contrast, data is abundant and ubiquitous, lending itself to virtuous cycles of infinite sum and cooperative strategies.

More importantly, the saga of oil was perhaps inevitable because it happened during the Cold War and prior to globalization. Today, for all the rhetoric of U.S.-China trade war, and claims of decoupling or at least checking the globalization, both countries are determined to remain within the global system. The question is not whether globalization or nationalization, for there is no inherent tension between the two.

The real issue is coming to terms with this new and rapidly unfolding form of globalization: new multipolar and multi-actor geopolitics; new super powers, small regionally influential political actors, private super powers, and highly engaged civil societies. This new context is used by governments as a pretext for cyber wars and walls, and could unleash digital anarchy that posed serious threats to global security. Data may be abundant, but limits are arising from the outdated global systems and institutions and short-sighted global leaders.

Humanity is facing existential challenges, surely from global warming and perhaps from out-of-control AI innovations. Our shared destiny demands global engagement and collective action, and time is running out. This new geo-political order is a perfect match for taking on the task, but global governmental leadership needs to set the direction. Can global leaders have the vision to grasp the opportunity, engaging in serious dialogue to set the tone for a peaceful 21st century? 

Gregory Treverton, who stepped down as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council in 2017, is professor of the Practice at Dornsife College, University of Southern California.

Pari Esfandiari, Ph.D., is a serial entrepreneur, internet pioneer, and sustainable development executive. She serves as the CEO of Pario Consultants.