Imagine it is 2050. Economic, geopolitical and cyberthreats are omnipresent. Political power is centralized at a national level. Citizens sacrifice their individual freedoms for collective security. Physical borders extend into the virtual world and national intranets are created in response to increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks.
This extreme scenario is up for debate at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters. We hope that considering different scenarios for the world in 2050 will provide a better lens to judge our options for shaping the governance systems of the future.
In this imaginary future called e-1984, the promise of big data has been realized. The trust that citizens place in their government allows for the harvest and analysis of big data. Governments effectively and efficiently assess citizen behaviour, values and interests, and use that information to advance their policies and services.
As efficiency and satisfaction rise, citizens are increasingly complacent and lack the motivation to be personally involved in traditional political institutions.
E-1984 is a familiar picture of a dystopian world, but with a twist: can big data lead to better policies? Will citizens let their data speak for them? How would societal values change in a world of ubiquitous surveillance?
Governments by nature want power; they certainly want more power to gather information. But how will they use it? In the best possible world, they will create good policies and govern well. But history suggests that it is just as likely they will use it against their political opponents. Some governments might see it as a tool to limit resistance and discourage organized opposition.
Big data must be taken seriously. In the wrong hands, it can be a powerful weapon. Imagine, for instance, what Richard Nixon might have done with unrestricted access to information. Based on the technologically crude break-in at the Watergate Hotel, he’d likely have used it to undermine political rivals in support of his re-election. Many politicians today would be similarly tempted; the risks are real.
For big data to be a legitimate political tool, the system needs checks and balances. The Internet is history’s biggest and most complex system, possibly mankind’s greatest technological achievement. But it wasn’t designed for security; it was designed for openness and information sharing.
Nation states have a vested interest in trying to increase their power by securing their networks, but it’s really hard to block the Internet. And their interest is based on a false assumption: locking down the Internet into separate national networks might actually make it more vulnerable to attack at the national Internet access points.
What’s more, the effort may be hopeless. Beckstrom’s Law of cyber security states that anything attached to a network can be hacked. And since everything is being attached to networks, everything is vulnerable.
It could also compromise another valuable Internet quality: transparency. The practice of anonymizing data has been used successfully to protect identities. But using big data analysis, most people can now be identified through anonymous data. Companies can already recognize you from the way you click and type your password, a practice that has a history: during World War II, Morse code operators could be identified by listening to their tapping style. Computers can now be programmed to do the same.
The technological capacity to record and store massive data already exists, and the scope of data that governments and businesses collect on individuals is jaw dropping. Soon, everything you listen to or say or look at through your computer glasses could be recorded. Permanently. In the not-so-distant future, this could maybe extend to everything you think.
While human nature suggests that big data might be used to create a dystopian e-1984 by allowing government to track our private data, that transparency works both ways. While governments watch their citizens, citizens are watching their governments.
Throughout history, leaders have done terrible things in war and other conflicts because they thought no one was watching; Saddam Hussein’s massacres are a prime example. The Syrian civil war is horrific but without Twitter and other forms of Internet reporting, it might well be worse.
The world is becoming a digital panopticon, in which everyone’s behaviour is monitored by someone else. Micro-blogging sites like Weibo and Twitter already feed data back into that loop; we saw the impact of this in the Arab Spring revolutions. Weibo has more than half a billion users and is transforming the way the Chinese government addresses citizen input. Twitter is a valuable resource for sentiment analysis.
Revelations about the National Security Agency and Prism from Edward Snowden and the US government – along with the ongoing fallout from Wikileaks – raise geopolitical issues of trust and confidence as well as US constitutional questions. But they are also clear examples of the emerging organic system of checks and balances in the new panopticon world.
Cyber threats are pervasive and will remain so – a consistent threat to personal privacy and to national security. But breaking up the Internet to protect national interests, creating separate and self-contained national networks, will shatter the unity among nations that is essential to our collective future.
As to citizens relinquishing their voting power to an electronic third party, in a way they already do that when they relinquish their voting judgement to political parties and people they trust.
It seems unlikely that a collective preference for security over greater connectivity would ever emerge. The Internet is breaking down traditional barriers and creating global citizens – people are more connected than ever to those in other countries and becoming less trustful of their governments, not more.
As we move steadily closer to connecting every person in the world, our economic future will depend on maintaining a unified global Internet. It is the foundation for continuing innovation and economic growth, and our principal platform for communication across cultural and political boundaries.
Author: Rod A. Beckstrom is chief security adviser at Samsung. He chairs the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet.
The World Economic Forum’s Strategic Foresight team and the Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government have developed three scenarios of how the world of governance could evolve by 2050: CityStates, e-1984 and Gated Communities.