Why digital sovereignty matters
When exploitative data gathering meets expansive Chinese government data controls, long-term economic advantages for China are the result. Can the U.S. catch up?
Data trafficking presents three levels of risk—personal, economic, and security. First, and least abstract, data trafficking impacts individual users. Individual users face the risk of becoming targets for surveillance or intelligence gathering. Personal risk stems not just from the data that a person shares with one platform but also from the information that this user’s data can generate when combined with other data sources.
Insights gleaned from combining multiple sources of data exemplify the idea of “mosaic theory,” also known as “compilation theory.” In its Freedom of Information Act guidelines, the United States Department of the Navy defines mosaic theory as “the concept that apparently harmless pieces of information, when assembled together could reveal a damaging picture.” In one striking example of mosaic theory, Target sent coupons for maternity-related products to a teenage girl, thereby exposing her pregnancy to her parents before she notified them. In an environment in which Chinese commercial tech firms like TikTok and WeChat are gathering user data at the same time that the Chinese state is sponsoring the hacking of security clearance information from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the credit bureau Equifax, data trafficking can produce rich profiles of individual users.
This individual-level risk feels unnerving. It is not, however, the most serious risk posed by data trafficking. Most people are simply not exciting intelligence targets
Data trafficking also poses a threat to companies’—and countries’—economic competitiveness. Large data sets generated by consumers are used to train machine learning algorithms that support the development of artificial intelligence. Technologist Cory Doctorow analogizes the risks presented by data gathering to climate change, where threats operate at scale and over a long time horizon.
Advances in artificial intelligence offer a pathway to long-term economic dominance, where improved data gathering leads to better products, which in turn leads to market control. Such pathways are developed through monopolistic practices by U.S. tech firms that advance predatory U.S. corporate data-gathering practices. Tech trade with China amplifies such concerns. When exploitative data gathering meets expansive Chinese government data controls, the result is that Chinese firms gain long-term economic advantages.
By forcing companies to store data locally and requiring national data audits, the Chinese government blurs the lines dividing private digital spaces and national information resources. Chinese consumer data gathering in the United States presents opportunities for surveilling U.S. elites, advancing misinformation on popular U.S. platforms, and modeling U.S. communities to gather insights for advanced product development (something that U.S. firms cannot do in China). Refining dual-use technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence through consumer use further strengthens the technology available to the Chinese military. Chinese government efforts to control the country’s domestic tech sector thus have a global impact. Each sector presents its own data-trafficking risks. Taken together, they create a mosaic composed not just of the life of one person but of an entire community’s political beliefs, health risks, and economic vulnerabilities. But the uses of such data present risks to individuals, economic competitiveness, and national security—not just in the present but for decades to come.