Data Control is the 21st-Century Nuclear Arms Race

(This post also ran as an Op-Ed in the Daily Toreador.)

Imagine a world without the Internet.

Scary, right? Even though it was a mere 30 years ago that we lived in a world virtually devoid of large-scale computer networks, it is almost impossible to imagine living a comfortable modern life without the Internet.

Networked computer automation is all around us. Consider the simple process of buying a meal from a local fast food restaurant. The teller swipes your credit card, sending your financial information to a transaction company, which manages the transfer of credits (aka. U.S. Dollars) from your bank account to the fast food chain.

This fast food chain then drops your credits into its pool of credits, stored as bits on a secure enterprise server somewhere around the world, tied to financial management software on hundreds of servers worldwide, interacting millions of times a second with similar servers on a global network of stock trades, purchase orders, advertising expenditures, and thousands of other transactions.

Without the Internet, without automated, networked computer systems, such a global financial infrastructure would operate at a snail’s pace. The Internet is essential to the very operation of the world. It mediates food and clothing shipments, energy generation and distribution, communication—every single facet of modern life.

While providing us with more power to move information and money around the world than humanity has ever possessed, our dependence on the Internet has also made us more vulnerable than ever before.

I recently finished a duo of books by Daniel Suarez, “Daemon” and “Freedom™,” which explore the potential ramifications of this vulnerability. In “Daemon,” a brilliant game programmer dies and leaves behind the “Daemon,” a distributed artificial intelligence that spreads through the Internet like a parasite and holds the world’s data hostage as it constructs a new digital society.

The tools by which the Daemon operates – botnets, DDoS attacks, scripted events, viral distribution, massively parallel communication – are all familiar to your average geek. What it does at every stage is perfectly plausible given the network technology we use now.

 Through the two books Suarez demonstrates how easy it would be for a coordinated cyber initiative by an entity such as the Daemon to completely take over the basic functions of our lives. Financial records, identities, personal histories, news – they are all stored digitally now by market necessity. They can all be controlled digitally as well.

Despite what faith we might have in data security, every month we hear of at least one massive failure on the part of some major company to properly secure sensitive information against attack. And those are just the incidents we hear about. A couple of months ago I found out that my Bank of America data might’ve been compromised only after my card stopped working and I called the company.

Data control and digital warfare are our generation’s nuclear arms race. We’ve all seen the continuing battle between China and Google over control of that nation’s ability to freely access the world’s information. Their skirmish is merely one of the first and most visible manifestations of a war that will unfold over the following decades.

Suarez’ argument is clear – our modern world’s dependence on the Internet and digital technology makes us incredibly fragile. We are nowhere near as secure as we would like to believe.

Everything we hold dear could come crashing down around us if ever the power to control data on a large scale fell into the wrong hands. Nuclear weapons seem rather insignificant when it becomes possible to destroy any or all of the world’s data in an instant.

In Suarez’ books the Daemon wrests control of this fragile system from humanity and essentially becomes its arbiter, building a democratic “Darknet” society that must comply with certain basic rules. Participants in this society operate much like players in an MMORPG, gaining reputation and skills that the Daemon grants.

While I disagree that such a fantastic solution is the best answer, the underlying message remains clear: by granting control of our very livelihood to corporations and governments with massive data centers, we have made human society more vulnerable than it has ever been in history.

I am no conspiracy theorist, but I believe in the old adage that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are at a crucial stage in the evolution of digital society in which we can still lay down a modicum of control over our data.

I’m not suggesting you remove yourself completely from digital society. Indeed, to do so would be virtually impossible and would involve giving up essentially all the comforts and opportunities of modern first-world existence.

Support initiatives like open source software, Web standards and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rally for corporate regulation and transparency. As consumers we can and should still vote with our dollars.

So the next time you swipe that card, think about where your credits are going and ask yourself whether you’re okay with the destination. Mind your data. Mind your identity. It’s your life.

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