How to Win the Battle Over Data

The United States Dithers While Authoritarians Seize the Day

A data center in Lulea, Sweden David Levene / eye vine / Redux

In recent years, a number of authoritarian governments have begun taking data very seriously. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping believe that the twenty-first century belongs to nations that control communications platforms, suppress independent media, and dominate the development of data-driven technologies such as artificial intelligence. These regimes cordon off their domestic Internet space and shut off their citizens from global information flows, while undermining rival countries through disinformation campaigns and hacking. Authoritarian governments try to steal the intellectual property and databases of foreign organizations, but lock foreign firms out of their own data-rich sectors.

The United States has yet to show up to this information fight. U.S. cyberstrategists prioritize defending physical infrastructure—routers, servers, and endpoint devices such as laptops and smartphones—but consistently underestimate the economic and political significance of the information carried on that infrastructure. The U.S. private sector, which rarely acts in the American national interest, is primarily responsible for protecting data and information platforms.

It can be tough to craft regulations and national security policies for data and technology that do not fall afoul of democratic and capitalist values. A national information strategy can sound, or indeed become, Orwellian without the right political leadership. But to thrive in the twenty-first century, democracies must now put information at the center of domestic, security, and foreign policy.

Marshaling Data

Russia’s interference in U.S. elections may be the most well-known case of a state using sensitive political and social information to attack another, but it is by no means the only example. In 2014, Chinese hackers stole the personal information of more than 22 million people connected to U.S. security clearance processes. That breach not only demonstrated the vulnerability of U.S. government systems to hostile actors but also provided China with a tremendous resource. China could use the stolen data to profile and target U.S. officials and their families. It could also use the “clean” and highly structured data to train the algorithms

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