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Big Data & Betrayal

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford comments on diplomacy in the age of chaotic transparency

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland did not foresee the giddy rise of the Internet. The world seems to be going round faster and faster as each day passes. Yet the very idea of ‘minding one’s own business’ is getting much fuzzier.

Back in 1978, deep in the Cold War, I was a postgraduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston in the US. One of my fellow students was Jay Pollard, an intense if not obsessive character who vaunted hawkish opposition to the Soviet Union. After we left Fletcher, Jay joined US Naval Intelligence Command. He then started selling US military intelligence material to Israel in prodigious quantities. Back in those days it was hard to do anything but photocopy documents and smuggle them out of the building, and this he did voluminously (tens of thousands of documents). He was caught and sentenced to life imprisonment.

At least Pollard had a photocopier. Soviet analyst Vasili Mitrokhin had to make laborious copies of KGB documents that he hid in pieces in his socks to get them out of the building before he quietly copied them again at his dacha using home-made ink to avoid suspicions. When the Cold War ended he offered thousands of these documents to the Americans, who did not believe his story. The wily MI6 did believe him, and took possession of an astonishing archive revealing deep KGB operations in Asia and elsewhere.

Back then, industrial scale betrayal took commitment and discipline, lasting for years. The betrayer needed to take some interest in individual documents. Now? A small USB stick and a reckless attitude are sufficient. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning was a junior US soldier who handed over to Wikileaks some 800,000 US military and diplomatic cables. Edward Snowden was a computer expert working with the US National Security Agency who took it upon himself to dump on the Internet formidable quantities of US, UK and other sensitive intelligence information before scurrying to Russia.

It’s not just government information that gets leaked. In 2015 thousands of private Swiss HSBC bank account details were leaked, to huge embarrassment for all sorts of people. And now we have the so-called ‘Panama Papers,’ a sprawling database of over eleven million documents covering 40 years of clever manoeuvring by banks, kings, politicians, film stars, football players and others who had hoped to keep their financial activities run unobtrusively by Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca.

It’s difficult to imagine what 11 million documents even looks like. Eleven million A4 documents would stretch 3,267 km, or from London well beyond Moscow to Samara. We certainly have lots to read along this long trail. The previously private business dealings of relatives and close friends of top Chinese, Russian, British, Malaysian, Kazakh, Pakistani, Azerbaijani, South African, Moroccan, Ukrainian, Saudi Arabian, Argentinian and many other national leaders have been painfully compromised.

Is this a problem or just a fact of modern life? Iceland’s Prime Minister speedily resigned when the indignant Icelandic masses found out that his family had sheltered money offshore. But has it really made much of a difference to most of the other governments concerned, or their forlorn citizens? The British government huffs and puffs about corruption elsewhere. But why bear down on Panama for having a tax haven, when the real problem is oppressive bloated Western tax systems that encourage anyone with money and sense to make ‘other arrangements’?

What does it all mean? Isn’t all this brutish transparency and ‘leaktivism’ good? Democratic? Fair? Or is it selfish, subversive and essentially chaotic?

Here’s the basic problem. While we ponder those existential questions, massive data leaks will keep happening whether we like it or not.

Every second of every day sees Big Data oceans getting deeper and wider. As the power of computers to accumulate data grows exponentially, so too does the way we all use them. The very act of agglomerating public and private data to get things done opens the way to someone somewhere somehow accessing that data and copying it for public distribution.

Remote hackers bombard databases with swarming cyber attacks, searching for arcane security weaknesses. Electronic walls and other ploys within each system keep them at bay, or not. Almost impossible to stop are disgruntled insiders, people trusted with access to databases who decide to steal their organisation’s data and throw it to the e-winds.

Plus there’s always the Psychology of the Individual. When Hillary Clinton was US Secretary of State, she and her team used private email networks for sending highly classified US official information. How much of this information did the Russians and others grab thanks to the feeble security she used? What proportion (if any) of the secret US information they did acquire might they now release to an amazed world, to add to the excitement of the already vivid US presidential campaign?

In short, mere governments are left scrambling to find a solid base for their laws and principles for governing both official and commercially owned information. No-one seriously disputes the idea that some information needs to be kept private if not secret. But what categories of information? Who decides? Who has access to it, and how? What happens if the agreed rules aren’t adhered to? What happens if the technology jumps ahead far faster than the rules to control it? What if (gulp) there is no way to apply any useful rules to this baffling situation?

Examples of new policy difficulties pop up everywhere you look. Old ways of doing things abruptly become obsolete as new options emerge. Should the US public have the right to know who visits the White House and whom they meet there? No, says the White House (although it does now make many visitor logs available).

What about patients’ medical records held by state health authorities? Obviously private! But why not release for public analysis aggregated anonymised health data so that experts and the wider public alike can start to assess for themselves what is going on between different hospitals and treatment strategies? People can already see how local crime rates and school success rates affect their property values. Why not see what local factors affect your health?

While we’re at it, why not look at taxes differently? It’s easy to trace vehicle movements now. Why not link road tax and car insurance premiums directly to how many miles each car drives and where/when it travels? Safe drivers respecting speed limits get discounts.

What about state spending on, well, pretty much everything? We currently record public spending much like we did centuries ago, namely in records largely kept confidential by each government agency concerned. Nowadays the records are electronic but the principle is the same, even if it is qualified by laboured Freedom of Information procedures.

Why not turn it round so that almost every government spending transaction is published in real time? That would make diplomacy quite lively. The British Ambassador in (say) Peru hosts the Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister for lunch? Ka-ching! The lunch and its cost (and the extra dessert) instantly appear on the Internet, for anyone to see in both the UK and Peru. As does the Ambassador’s salary and allowances. How about the record of the conversation too?

Wait. If all civil servants’ salaries (and, yes, all BBC staff contracts too) are published, all state benefit payments and who gets them should be public too.

Goodbye dull old privacy – and a warm welcome to sassy new radical transparency. It’s our money! Who’s getting it, and why?



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