Finding Australia’s asymmetric advantage in big data

It’s important to think beyond the cliché that data is the new oil. The dystopian dream of seamless data integration and the ability to “collect and know it all” overlooks complex data politics. National borders and ambitions create a landscape characterized by balkanization, conflicts and contestation.

Countries know that a strategic advantage is hidden somewhere in the data – the signal in noise. However, a key question for all countries is whether this advantage lies in ensuring centralized control of data, in promoting openness and transparency, or in prioritizing the use of data for serve the public interest.

It would be easy to lift the drawbridge and view the growing calls for digital sovereignty as calls for autarky. Mobilizing Australia’s asymmetric advantage hinges on our ability to build on our democratic heritage to avoid the perverse mirrors of data surveillance systems, or “dataveillance,” which we frequently criticize. It means moving from a mindset of technology adoption and data reliance to one of deepened interdependencies, international partnerships and civic engagement.

Almost 10 years ago, CIA Chief Technology Officer Gus Hunt formulated the “collect it all” theory of cybersecurity and mass data surveillance: “The value of any information is known only when you can connect it to something else that happens at some point on time. Since you can’t connect points that you don’t have, this leads us into a mode of … try[ing] to pick it up and hang on to it forever.

This philosophy of collecting everything increasingly defines broad areas of national security and economic and social life. We live in an era of big data where seamless integration is seen as a strategic necessity. Much relies on our ability to convert the potential of data into a resource. It would expand the national conception of where and how we derive and trade economic value.

It’s easy to get carried away by a mindset that sees data infrastructure modernization as essential. Although corporate and government jargonists would have us believe that they are sending us into the stratosphere, many societal problems remain intractable.

A recent example of the tensions common to many corporate and government data projects is the hiatus of the “battle management system” component of the Australian Army’s Land 200 project. The army chief described the digital command and control of forces as the priority project: ‘[W]hen we build a network and connect all parts of that force to that network, we are greater than the sum of the individual. It’s about improving the quality of command and control over all aspects of our operations, so it’s not about high-end warfare, or counterterrorism. It’s about everything we do.

The battlefield management system was intended to connect each vehicle and soldier to a secure tracking system so that commanders knew the exact location of all their personnel and equipment, and each soldier could see, through moving symbols on a computer screen, where everyone was.

Cost overruns, significant governance issues identified in a scathing audit report and program pause represent common vulnerabilities in data projects.

It is tempting to buy material on the bookshelf to save money, but we need to think about how enterprise data projects are the product of unique organizational cultures, human capital, and infrastructure densities.

The great promise of 360 data systems is that they allow a busy executive or commander to pinpoint issues and opportunities by viewing an engaging dashboard without the need to understand the shape of the data.

However, this assumes that organizations have a strong governance and hygiene strategy to deal with data that may be inconsistent, poorly integrated, or coming from questionable sources. If the wrong questions are not asked about the data, what appears on a dashboard can be meaningless or misleading. In the quest to streamline and simplify, a dashboard may indicate that something is wrong, but not how bad it is.

Lack of top-to-bottom control over data in organizations is a pervasive vulnerability. In an age defined by attention deficits, the promise of carefully solved complex problems on PowerPoint slides gives too much to skillful sales agents.

And all of our sophisticated tools for managing, finding, linking, sharing, and analyzing data in mind-numbing iterative and synergistic processes can give us the mistaken impression that we are on the path to change, as in fact we are simply reproducing the Status Quo.

Despite claims by tech evangelists, the trend for companies to indiscriminately collect and monitor everything risks reducing the ability to understand complexity. Big data can construct new realities where “face-to-face” algorithmic acceptability becomes the ideal.

The worst aspects of data analysis reduce diverse human lives and multidimensional social structures to data points. The functional and the mechanistic are preferred over the contradictory and the paradoxical, and the critical value of altered experience, of good judgment, of the obscure and of the marginal may be lost.

The collector’s philosophy and the 360-degree view of human and ecological systems it could offer could be exploited endlessly by the powerful. Citizens grouped into pseudo-scientific psychological profiles provide rich fodder for micro-targeting by rogue governments, foreign agents, charlatans and business executives.

There are inherent inequalities in data systems. A report commissioned by the Dutch Data Protection Authority 12 years ago, estimated that the average Dutch citizen is included in 250 to 500 databases, and up to 1,000 for more socially active people. This can occur through excessive surveillance of certain groups and individuals (strengthen the over-police, for example) and the under-surveillance of those who do not have access to data systems.

Data still presents a partial view, but the problem of data power asymmetry is even more pressing. The collection of our movement, health and demographic data is increasingly entrusted to global and national monopolies for the control and extraction of profits, rather than to promote the national interest.

With fewer companies possessing the human capital and raw computer processing power to process complex data, we face a narrow world where the rich and paradoxical human experience is pushed and narrowed towards more “efficient” and predictable choices. . In the process, we lose the sense of a democratic ideal of data: to use this resource to preserve the public good.

This translates into the establishment of international data standards, another hotly contested area. When we assume that data is perfectly interchangeable, we are missing out on the important ways in which regulatory frameworks and international standards ensure the continuation of cross-border data trade.

Blockchain, for example, is intended to smooth the flow of information between jurisdictions, but when individual countries insist on global compliance with their national crypto protocols, it can force backdoors that pose risks to the community. security. We must not lose sight of the importance of maintaining a international system which provides some form of common regulatory oversight over data transfers.

China has made data a matter of national security and has placed strict limits on how it can be stored and transferred beyond the “Great Firewall”. While there are economic arguments in favor of this form of data mercantilism, we are a long way from the early promises of a free and open Internet. China has more to learn from the relative openness of democratic systems as a source of innovation, which it has tried to tinker with through strategies intellectual property theft.

But within our own borders, we may not even know the strengths and weaknesses of our own data network. Many data systems work because they have been effectively corrected by temporary measures. While there is a lot of focus on modernizing technology infrastructure, most of our technology spending is on operating and maintaining existing systems, not improving them.

A recent U.S. government accountability office report found that of the US $ 90 billion spent by the federal government on information technology in 2019, almost 80% was spent on the operation and maintenance of existing systems.

In Australia, a 2019 report on IT spending in the Australian Civil Service concluded that ‘agency investment budgets are underfunded and that there is strong evidence of a technology deficit in APS, with some large legacy systems at end of life or end. of life “. This review called for an infrastructure audit, which could provide strategic direction to a government otherwise relying on a passive approach to technology adoption.

A 2016 GAO report found that the U.S. departments of Commerce, Defense, Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs were still using the 1980s and 1990s Microsoft operating systems that the vendor had. ceased to support over a decade ago. The same mix of Australian departments can be just as vulnerable.

A candid assessment of Australian networks and infrastructure risks can evolve as a pivot to a risk management approach in government information security becomes more widely understood.

It is impossible to eliminate all data security risks. All organizations want to avoid a violation that negatively affects individuals or national revenues associated with intellectual property and collective surveillance. It is within our grasp to seek a high level of preventive harm reduction and create a data regime that acts in the national public interest.

There are under-explored opportunities in Australia for real use of data that a top-down collection ethic might miss. There are examples of experimentation with data that strengthens citizen engagement and participation in regulatory processes. One is the Taiwan process created by a civil society movement at the invitation of the Taiwanese minister of digital technology.

Australia needs to ensure that the benefits of data are distributed more evenly and that the harms of data are not socialized. If data frameworks do not balance the preservation of Australia’s democratic system and the development of our skills ecosystem, we will end up with a digital and data dependency that compromises our sovereignty and does not provide the enhanced digital interdependence that we will have. need to navigate in a period increasingly defined by digital geopolitics.

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