Moving beyond geopolitics

Deeper issues arising due to the pandemic are slowly emerging as the world relaxes lockdown measures. These issues, especially those relating to the convergence of technologies such as biotechnology, genetic engineering and information technology, will have a long-term impact on geopolitics. Underlying most geopolitical issues are technology and data, which are interdependent. National governments, policymakers, and healthcare researchers are using technology and data to plan and improve economic activities, social development, and treat deadly diseases more effectively than ever before.

Changing idea of privacy

Technology and data are now inherently geopolitical. Proper data related to the COVID-19 outbreak were not shared in time, and that is why there is so much anger towards the World Health Organization and China. The nature of technology and data has placed tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon in a commanding position. At one time, these tech giants needed the support of governments everywhere. But now, with their global reach, it is governments that are dependent on them. Access to data on a majority of the population makes these giants stronger when they enter the negotiating room with governments. The current pandemic is a great example of how people across the globe have accepted the idea of their live locations being traced and shared with governments. In India, without much concern for the right to privacy, more than 90 million people have downloaded Aarogya Setu. The pandemic has brought a change in perception on issues like privacy.

Tech giants are taking a leading role in geopolitics, at times playing on their own and sometimes as proxies of nation states to influence policymaking and national regulations. The U.S.-China trade war, the position of governments on Huawei 5G technology, and Facebook’s attempt to implement internet.org are a few examples.

An unprecedented amount of data are being collected by tech giants. The data need to be used towards the welfare of society, but the sharing of data presents many challenges to human rights. COVID-19 is a good example of this. Are we not doing injustice to people by not sharing data in a timely fashion merely due to geopolitical reasons? It is the right of every human being to benefit from the collective data to which he or she contributes.

The current data system is one where the incentives align with the creation and spread of technological innovations but not their governance (think of Cambridge Analytica). Restrictions on the flow of data have increased significantly in the last 7-8 years. Across the world, data protection laws, requirements of data localisation, laws related to weakening of encryption keys and data retention requirements are by and large patchwork. These frameworks are not interoperable. They focus on protection of personal data and privacy and give little thought to the broader impact of data on mobility and social aspects. Data protection frameworks such as the the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU and the CLOUD Act of the U.S. are aimed at putting users in control of their data. But they have issues relating to data localisation and cross-border flow of information. These frameworks have not solved the issues of data sharing. Even the UN has not succeeded in bringing consensus in the preparation of a framework on the norms of behaviour in cyberspace. With data flow set to become more important over time, we need government regulations and standard and inter-operable frameworks to govern issues and address risks emerging from these technological innovations.

Data in the post-COVID world

The post-COVID-19 world is expected to be different. Digital equity will require frameworks relating to governance of technology and data that look beyond geopolitical considerations. We need to distinguish individual data from large global data sets. We cannot extrapolate the current human rights framework to human rights in the digital and biological domain. The current concept of privacy and cross-border flow of information may require significant change. There is a dire need to impose obligations for data flow on countries and tech giants in the larger interest of mankind. We need to establish a baseline of global norms of data governance that go beyond privacy and geopolitical considerations. These norms must focus on mechanisms to leverage data to solve problems and ensure consistency, interoperability, privacy and security. It is the right time for a Parliament select committee to look at the data protection framework. At the same time we need to identify an international body to evolve global norms on data governance.

Anil Taneja is an MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School and Gulshan Rai is former National Cyber Security Coordinator, PMO India

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