Report: Data Bodies

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  Databody convergence

In the phrase "the rise of the citizen as a consumer", to be found on the EDS website, the cardinal political problem posed by the databody industry is summarised: the convergence of commercial and political interest in the data body business, the convergence of bureaucratic and commercial data bodies, the erosion of privacy, and the consequent undermining of democratic politics by private business interest.

When the citizen becomes a consumer, the state must become a business. In the data body business, the key word behind this new identity of government is "outsourcing". Functions, that are not considered core functions of government activity are put into the hands of private contractors.

There have long been instances where privately owned data companies, e.g. credit card companies, are allowed access to public records, e.g. public registries or electoral rolls. For example, in a normal credit card transaction, credit card companies have had access to public records in order to verify identity of a customer. For example, in the UK citizen's personal data stored on the Electoral Roll have been used for commercial purposes for a long time. The new British Data Protection Act now allows people to "opt out" of this kind of commercialisation - a legislation that has prompted protests on the part of the data industry: Experian has claimed to lose LST 500 mn as a consequence of this restriction - a figure that, even if exaggerated, may help to understand what the value of personal data actually is.

While this may serve as an example of an increased public awareness of privacy issues, the trend towards outsourcing seems to lead to a complete breakdown of the barriers between commercial and public use of personal data. This trend can be summarised by the term "outsourcing" of government functions.

Governments increasingly outsource work that is not considered core function of government, e.g. cooking meals in hospitals or mowing lawns in public parks. Such peripheral activities marked a first step of outsourcing. In a further step, governmental functions were divided between executive and judgemental functions, and executive functions increasingly entrusted to private agencies. For these agencies to be able to carry out the work assigned to them, the need data. Data that one was stored in public places, and whose handling was therefore subject to democratic accountability. Outsourcing has produced gains in efficiency, and a decrease of accountability. Outsourced data are less secure, what use they are put to is difficult to control.

The world's largest data corporation, EDS, is also among the foremost outsourcing companies. In an article about EDS' involvement in government outsourcing in Britain, Simon Davies shows how the general trend towards outsourcing combined with advances in computer technology allow companies EDS, outside of any public accountability, to create something like blueprints for the societies of the 21st century. But the problem of accountability is not the only one to be considered in this context. As Davies argues, the data business is taking own its own momentum "a ruthless company could easily hold a government to ransom". As the links between government agencies and citizens thin out, however, the links among the various agencies might increase. Linking the various government information systems would amount to further increase in efficiency, and a further undermining of democracy. The latter, after all, relies upon the separation of powers - matching government information systems would therefore pave the way to a kind of electronic totalitarianism that has little to do with the ideological bent of George Orwell's 1984 vision, but operates on purely technocratic principles.

Technically the linking of different systems is already possible. It would also create more efficiency, which means generate more income. The question, then, whether democracy concerns will prevent it from happening is one that is capable of creating

But what the EDS example shows is something that applies everywhere, and that is that the data industry is whether by intention or whether by default, a project with profound political implications. The current that drives the global economy deeper and deeper into becoming a global data body economy may be too strong to be stopped by conventional means.

However, the convergence of political and economic data bodies also has technological roots. The problem is that politically motivated surveillance and economically motivated data collection are located in the same area of information and communication technologies. For example, monitoring internet use requires more or less the same technical equipment whether done for political or economic purposes. Data mining and data warehousing techniques are almost the same. Creating transparency of citizens and customers is therefore a common objective of intelligence services and the data body industry. Given that data are exchanged in electronic networks, a compatibility among the various systems is essential. This is another factor that encourages "leaks" between state-run intelligence networks and the private data body business. And finally, given the secretive nature of state intelligence and commercial data capturing , there is little transparency. Both structures occupy an opaque zone.

browse Report:
Data Bodies
    Global data bodies - intro
-3   Bureaucratic data bunkers
-2   Private data bunkers
-1   Global hubs of the data body industry
0   Databody convergence
+1   Databody economy and the surveillance state
+2   Election campaigning and direct marketing
+3   Become your own data merchant!