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Future wars will revolve around data, not oil

The Digital Alarmist
Last Updated : 14 May 2022, 21:55 IST
Last Updated : 14 May 2022, 21:55 IST

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Over the past 75 years, numerous geopolitical and economic wars have been fought in various parts of the globe for control of energy resources such as oil, gas, coal and timber. Such control extends not just to the extraction of these fuels at their sources but also their processing and transportation (‘global supply chains’, in today’s lingo) to energy markets in different countries. The wars have been justified on the basis of national security concerns of individual countries or country blocs. Concrete examples of such egregious behaviour include the Suez Canal war and the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Iran in the 1950s, the two OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, and the Iraq wars of 1990 and 2003.

Now that the world is starting to move away from fossil fuels to green energy fuels such as provided by nuclear, solar and wind technologies – all of which can be harnessed by any country – a new basis for wars has already popped up on the scene, one that has been in the making for well over a decade. What I am referring to is the massive amount of data being collected, processed and jealously protected by the world’s largest information technology companies, which include Alphabet (Google), Apple, Amazon, IBM, Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, and Netflix.

Since IT companies are necessarily beholden to the nation-states in which they operate for their continued functioning, data held by these companies can be used to selectively punish or promote countries or citizens at the individual level. The treasure trove of free data provided by India’s 1.3 billion people is ready for exploitation, whereas China offers little since the country shut out the US tech giants early on.

Welcome to data wars, the wars of the future that will be fuelled by an internet-of-things (IoT) world. You, my dear reader, are but a pawn, willingly providing, for free, a lot of data through your wearable computing artefacts such as Fitbit, your web browsing and e-commerce activities, and social media postings. Especially your social media postings, where you have self-identified with certain groups, shared information on yourself, your family and friends such as who you/they are, what you/they look like, your/their political, religious, professional affiliations, etc.

While you may be proud of your LinkedIn (a Microsoft subsidiary) profile, you can be tracked 24/7 by both friendly and inimical forces, especially if you are a nuclear scientist or someone engaged in the biological sciences. Ask any Iranian nuclear scientist or Israel’s NSO Group, of Pegasus fame. Or even the US Army, which banned its service members from wearing Fitbits when it learned that GPS tracking of Fitbits worn by soldiers accidentally revealed the existence of a secret US army base in the Middle East. Ukraine pleading with Elon Musk to remotely disable Tesla vehicles in Russia is doable and not all that farfetched.

The seriousness of India’s complete dependence on the seven tech companies, all of which are US-based, should terrify policymakers in Delhi. Endangering the sovereignty of the country in exchange for a few million jobs is not a good bargain, is it?

Germany’s political decisions in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war reflect the country’s near-total reliance on Russian energy supplies. Quite recently, the US Treasury Secretary called for a reshaping of trade relationships oriented around “trusted partners,” even if it meant higher costs for businesses and consumers. Do you think India is in this ‘trusted partner’ category?

In the newest trade deals being drawn up by the US, clauses pertaining to the internet are especially worth paying attention to since they seek to ensure the continuance of US dominance in information technology, where it currently has a competitive advantage. Some of these clauses impinge on the sovereignty of nation-states.

For example, nation-states cannot prevent cross-border data transfers, cannot place restrictions on where data can be stored and processed, and provide open access to government-generated public data. Also, since internet platforms (e.g., Amazon and Facebook) depend on user interaction and user content to succeed in the marketplace, the civil liability of such platforms hosting third-party content is severely restricted. Facebook gets off scot-free even though misinformation disseminated on its website may result in murder and mayhem.

In the future, if the US decides that it doesn’t like a particular position or action of the Indian State with regard to data ownership, wouldn’t you expect sanctions to be imposed, ones that could shut down Indian society, with devastating consequences to the population? When asked about the 500,000 children who had died from US-imposed sanctions on Iraq in 1992, Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State who died recently, chillingly remarked, “The price was worth it”!

Not all lives matter, do they?

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Published 14 May 2022, 18:51 IST

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