The battle over data
THE “battle over data” refers to the ongoing struggle for control and ownership of data, as well as the conflict over how data should be collected, stored, used and shared. In recent years, this battle has become increasingly relevant with the rapid growth of technology and the internet which has generated an enormous amount of data that has significant economic and social value. On one hand, corporations and governments want to collect, store and use data to improve their operations, make better decisions and target their products and services more effectively. On the other hand, individuals and privacy advocates want to protect their personal information and maintain control over how their data is used. This battle has led to numerous debates and controversies, such as the right to privacy, the responsibility of companies to protect personal information and the role of government in regulating the collection and use of data. Additionally, there are also debates around issues such as data ownership, data portability and data security.
Although the idea of using data as a strategic asset has grown in popularity in recent years, the everyday user is still unable to recognize the true worth of data. We are aware that large IT businesses have been gathering data for a very long time. We are aware that new laws governing the use of data are developed annually. Nevertheless, the majority of us are still unaware of how data may affect our society. The Economist published an article a few years ago titled “The World’s Most Valuable Resource Is no longer Oil, but Data.” However, it’s still difficult for most people to comprehend how data may become the new oil.
Oil and data are rarely used in their raw forms. The oil that has not been refined cannot be used. Oil needs to be extracted, processed and distributed in order to be useful. The same is true for data. The data must first be processed before it is ready for analysis, therefore we don’t use it right away. According to Clive Humby, “Data is the new oil. Like oil, data is valuable, but if unrefined, it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity. So, must data be broken down and analyzed for it to have value.” Data and cyber espionage are closely related because cyber espionage involves the theft or unauthorized access to data. Cyber espionage is the use of digital techniques to gain unauthorized access to sensitive or confidential information, such as trade secrets, military or government data, intellectual property, or personal information.
Nation-states, criminal organizations and corporate competitors are all known to engage in cyber espionage to gain a strategic advantage, steal intellectual property or financial data, or gather intelligence on political or military adversaries. The use of strong cyber security measures, such as encryption and access controls, can help protect against cyber espionage, but it remains a significant threat in today’s digital landscape. Pakistan, like many other countries, is grappling with challenges related to data governance and privacy. The country has introduced several laws and regulations to manage and protect the use of personal data and regulate the collection, storage and sharing of sensitive information.
Great powers use data to gain advantages in various ways, including: Surveillance and Intelligence: Great powers often use data to monitor their rivals’ activities and gather intelligence on potential threats, both domestically and abroad. They collect and analyze massive amounts of data from a variety of sources, including communications, social media and other public and private sources.
Cyber Attacks: Great powers engage in cyber-attacks to disrupt or sabotage their rivals’ critical infrastructure, such as power grids, financial systems, or military networks. They use data as a tool to penetrate and compromise targeted systems and steal sensitive information.
Economic and Political Influence: Great powers leverage data to influence economic and political decisions through propaganda, disinformation campaigns and social media manipulation. They use data analytics and artificial intelligence to analyze and target specific groups and individuals with customized messaging that amplifies their strategic objectives.
Military Operations: Great powers use data to enhance their military capabilities through the development of advanced weapons systems, real-time situational awareness and precision targeting. Overall, data has become a critical element of great power competition and its use is likely to continue to increase in the future.
One of the most significant battles over data in Pakistan relates to the country’s efforts to establish a centralized database of citizens’ biometrics and other personal information, known as the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). The project has been controversial, with concerns raised about the potential for misuse of personal data, especially in the absence of robust data protection laws and regulations. In addition to the NADRA project, Pakistan has also been working to regulate the use of digital platforms and social media.
In 2020, the government introduced the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules which require social media companies to register with the government, establish offices in Pakistan and comply with content removal requests. The battle over data in Pakistan highlights the need for comprehensive data protection laws and regulations that balance the benefits of data-driven innovation with privacy and security concerns. Ultimately, the battle over data is a complex and ongoing struggle that involves many different stakeholders and are likely to continue to evolve as technology advances and our understanding of the importance of data grows.
—The writer is Researcher at Centre for International Strategic Studies, AJK. Working on Cyber Warfare and National Security.