June 3, 2013
By Emanuel Pastreich
The Impending Crisis of Data: Do We Need a “Constitution of Information?
The recent scandal involving the surveillance of the Associated Press and Fox News by the United States Justice Department has focused attention on the erosion of privacy and freedom of speech in recent years. But before we simply attribute these events to the ethical failings of Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff, we also should consider the technological revolution powering this incident, and thousands like it. It would appear that bureaucrats simply are seduced by the ease with which information can be gathered and manipulated. At the rate that technologies for the collection and fabrication of information are evolving, what is now available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the United States, and around the world, will soon be available to individuals and small groups.
We must come to terms with the current information revolution and take the first steps to form global institutions that will assure that our society, and our governments, can continue to function through this chaotic and disconcerting period. The exponential increase in the power of computers will mean that changes the go far beyond the limits of slow-moving human government. We will need to build new institutions to the crisis that are substantial and long-term. It will not be a matter that can be solved by adding a new division to Homeland Security or Google.
We do not have any choice. To make light of the crisis means allowing shadowy organizations to usurp for themselves immense power through the collection and distortion of information. Failure to keep up with technological change in an institutional sense will mean that in the future government will be at best a symbolic façade of authority with little authority or capacity to respond to the threats of information manipulation. In the worst case scenario, corporations and government agencies could degenerate into warring factions, a new form of feudalism in which invisible forces use their control of information to wage murky wars for global domination.
No degree of moral propriety among public servants, or corporate leaders, can stop the explosion of spying and the propagation of false information that we will witness over the next decade. The most significant factor behind this development will be Moore’s Law which stipulates that the number of microprocessors that can be placed economically on a chip will double every 18 months (and the cost of storage has halved every fourteen months) —and not the moral decline of citizens. This exponential increase in our capability to gather, store, share, alter and fabricate information of every form will offer tremendous opportunities for the development of new technologies. But the rate of change of computational power is so much faster than the rate at which human institutions can adapt—let alone the rate at which the human species evolves—that we will face devastating existential challenges to human civilization.
The Challenges we face as a result of the Information Revolution
The dropping cost of computational power means that individuals can gather gigantic amounts of information and integrate it into meaningful intelligence about thousands, or millions, of individuals with minimal investment. The ease of extracting personal information from garbage, recordings of people walking up and down the street, taking aerial photographs and combining then with other seemingly worthless material and then organizing it in a meaningful manner will increase dramatically. Facial recognition, speech recognition and instantaneous speech to text will become literally child’s play. Inexpensive, and tiny, surveillance drones will be readily available to collect information on people 24/7 for analysis. My son recently received a helicopter drone with a camera as a present that cost less than $40. In a few years elaborate tracking of the activities of thousands, or millions, of people will become literally child’s play.
At the same time, increasing powerful technology will make the fabrication of texts, images, and, increasingly, videos and sounds easy. We can see already in the latest generation of virtual reality sophisticated forms of mimetic representation that promise to be indistinguishable from reality in the near future. The drastic drop in the cost of computation will make it possible to create elaborate histories for virtual events, and biographies for virtual people, that will make those realities entirely convincing. Once a virtual person has forty years of complex memories and records (from credit records to medical records and diaries), the challenge of distinguishing him from an actual individual will be difficult. In addition, as virtual reality merges with social networks, the chaos will be extreme. Facebook friends may end up being partially, and then primarily, avatars controlled by supercomputer networks without the individual being aware. The impact of the information revolution does not stop there. The use and misuse of DNA material in genetically modified organisms, or for other applications, is becoming exponentially cheaper. Whereas a single human genome was once prohibitively expensive, the cost of sequencing is falling at a rate far faster than Moore’s Law.
As the cost approaches zero for sequencing, Professor John Burn of Newcastle University is one of a growing number who advocate for creating genomes for every single human on earth. Doing so will be easy in five years or less, and the benefits could be tremendous. But imagine an age in which one’s DNA can be picked up off of a glass and duplicated into clones, or combined with other DNA to form payloads for viruses, or employed to manufacture off-the-shelf organs, there will be a desperate need for a set of rules and regulations on the collection and use of genetic information.
There are a host of other threats on the horizon that call out for some international system of regulation and control beyond simple market forces and gentleman’s agreements. Some can be predicted, others we can only speculate about. For example, we will face serious challenges when it comes to the function of money as it becomes entirely digitized and its value is subject to imperceptible manipulations and alterations on a global scale. So also the rise of micro-drones beyond the control of even governments that can spy and wage invisible wars will require new institutions to contain them. For that matter, the next generation of 3D printing not only promises breakthroughs such as organ fabrication and the synthesis of edible hydroponic meat tissues, but also threatens to make possible the unlicensed production of weapons according to designs. These developments will require new legal and ethical structures before they can be adequately addressed.
The Constitution of Information
I propose that the first step in responding to the information crisis is the drafting of a global “Constitution of Information” that sets down concrete rules concerning the use of information and the maintenance of accuracy of information, thereby establishing a reliable system that is founded on a strong set of checks and balances to make sure that attempts to control information does not lead to even greater abuses.
Although the gathering and manipulation of information has become a major issue, the existing national constitutions on which we base our laws and our governance (in the United States or elsewhere) have little to say about this problem. Moreover, many of us have trouble grasping the seriousness of the information crisis: it remains largely invisible because it alters the very means by which we perceive the world.
We need to hold an international constitutional convention in which we can draft a binding global “constitution of information” that will address the consequences of the information revolution. It would be meaningless simply to propose a text for a constitution at this point because a living constitution is not a written text but rather an institution created through a series of negotiations and compromises. At this point we can only identify the need and the general issues that must be addressed within such a constitution and by institutions created by that convention.
Those who object to such a constitution of information as a dangerous form of centralized authority that will encourage abuse are not fully aware of the problems we already face. The abuse of information has already reached epic proportions and we are just at the doorstep of exponential increases.
In his dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell foresaw the dangers of a centralized clearinghouse for official propaganda named “The Ministry of Truth” in which the imperative to promote veracity is perverted into a factory for manufacturing fiction in the tradition of Stalin. The dangers of such a distortion of any attempt to rectify the tremendous amount of disinformation and misinformation in circulation should be foremost in our minds.
We are proposing a system that will bring accountability and institutional transparency to the institutions that are already engaged in the control, collection, and alternation of information. The point is to give an ethical imperative and a vision for the future. Failure to establish institutions like this constitution of information will not assure preservation of an Arcadian utopia, but rather will encourage the emergence of even greater fields of information collection and manipulation that are entirely beyond the purview of any institution. The result will be increasing manipulation of human society by shadowy and invisible forces for which no set of regulations has been established.
One essential assumption behind the constitution of information should be, following David Brin’s argument in his book The Transparent Society (1998) that privacy will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to protect in the future in light of technological evolution. We must accept, paradoxically, that information must be made part of the public commons in order to preserve its integrity and its privacy. That is to say that simply protecting privacy will not be sufficient granted the overwhelming development of new technologies for gathering and altering information that will emerge in the years ahead.
Within a future constitution of information, and the institutions that it proposes, there must be a complex separation of powers wherein information is monitored, and its abuses controlled, or punished, according to a meticulous, painfully negotiated, agreement that follows the principles of transparency, accountability and the maintenance of a commons for the benefit of ordinary people. Information could be governed by three branches of government, something like the legislative, executive, and judicial systems that have served well in constitution-based governments following the proposals of Montesquieu for a tripartite system. The branches could be assigned different tasks and authorities within this system for monitoring information. The branches within government of information would have built into their mandates competing interests that would motivate them to limit the power of the other branches. Currently, there is little such balance of power within the global intelligence community or the large IT companies that have such influence globally.
For this reason, I suggest that as part of the three branches of government, a “three keys” system for the management of information be adopted. That is to say that sensitive information will be accessible—otherwise we cannot assure that information will be accurate—but that the information can only be accessed when the three keys are present that represent the three branches of the system. That process would assure that accountability can be maintained because three institutions whose interests are not necessarily aligned must be present to access that information.
The need to both assure privacy and to insure accuracy and reliability will require complex institutional changes and reinterpretations of the constitutional systems that exist already. But as we are already entering into a “post-constitutional” age in countries like the United States, it is imperative that we reaffirm the value of such public contracts so that to keep them from becoming mere ornaments.
The challenges of maintaining a balanced and reliable ecosystem for information cannot be dictated in a single article, but we can set the goal and start to bring together both practitioner and visionaries to put forth a direction and an encapsulation of the central tenets for a system based on transparency and accountability.