If data runs the world, who is in control?

Saturday 13 October, 10:0011:30, Frobisher 4-6Technology and society


The internet promised to open up the world for us, heralding a new age of freedom and opportunity. In many ways, this promise has been realised: information, communication and the ability to buy a vast array of goods and services are all now at our fingertips.

But have we really accepted all of the consequences that flow from this new age? Five of the six richest companies in the world make their dollars from data. More than half of all crime now happens online. Elections are won and lost with voter data and social-media campaigns. Manipulation of our personal data has variously been blamed for everything from unexpected political outcomes – like the UK’s vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election victory – to nefarious online practices. Meanwhile, newspapers and broadcasters struggle to stay afloat in a sea of digital content. Cyber-wars and bloody, real wars overlap. ‘Political’ hacking by the likes of Anonymous has made data part of activists’ armoury.

Fewer of us use cash to earn and spend, and many predict that notes and coins will soon vanish altogether as all transactions flash through the ether from account to account. But if the creators of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin hoped to use technology to knock down the old edifices of power – the state, the banks, monopoly corporations – now it seems those old institutions are rushing to use new technologies to consolidate their control.

If we believe encryption can protect our money, data and privacy, hackers and cyber-criminals too often remind us otherwise. Online business – predicated on trusting companies to store and transmit data securely – is something that perhaps can’t be taken for granted. The fallout from TSB’s botched data migration of customer accounts earlier this year, leaving millions of account holders without access to their money and transactions, was a further reminder of how reliant we have become on conducting our affairs online. In June, MyHeritage, an online genealogy platform, revealed that 92million accounts had been compromised. In March, sportswear manufacturer Under Armour reported that the details of 150million users of its MyFitnessPal apps had had their personal data leaked.

Who should police all this? Old-style policing methods seem no match for hackers, fraudsters and blackmailers operating across borders and through screens, exploiting the privacy of person-to-person communications. But turning the technological tables by policing the content of our computers and mobile phones renders us all transparent to the state in the most intimate details of our lives.

How can the law protect us while respecting our privacy? Does the litany of successful hacks threaten the public’s trust in data storage and processing, undermining the success of e-commerce? Is there a danger of losing perspective when only a tiny fraction of the huge number of transactions conducted online today is ever compromised? Can the old centres of power retain control of this new data-driven world?