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Column: We’re Not Prepared for the Era of Big Data

A t some point in the not-too-distant future, for the first time in the history of the world, almost everyone on the planet will become part of a single, man-made system. Via cell phones and the Internet, people in every corner of the Earth will be linked together, able to impact each other’s lives in ways that produce consequences we can only begin to understand.

Already, there are roughly as many cell phones on the planet as there are people. Development organizations have reordered the hierarchy of need among the world’s poorest from food-shelter-clothing to food-shelter-clothing-cell phone. No change of our time, not the fall of the Soviet Union nor the rise of the big emerging powers, is of comparable consequence. (To put matters into perspective, the United Nations has estimated that 4.5 billion people have access to a toilet today, but 6 billion have access to cell phones.)

If anything, terms like “Information Age” only underestimate the profundity of the changes taking place in our society, changes that will challenge the most basic rules of modern civilization. Yet, whereas the laws that govern modern society developed over hundreds of years and were established based on centuries of philosophical reflection, we are today writing new laws and making new decisions about the shape of life without the benefit of a new era of adequate philosophical debate.

These issues appear interwoven with daily headlines, often in fairly subtle ways. Take the Boston Marathon bombing. In a world full of smartphone cameras and closed-circuit TV, we have entered new territory. No longer is the unobserved life not worth living — now it is an impossibility. If Big Brother is not watching, countless video and web empowered bystanders are. The crowdsourced surveillance state is a boon to solving crimes quickly, a likely deterrent to bad behavior, and a real encroachment on traditional ideas of privacy all at once. And we are just in early days of the technologies that make this possible. With cameras getting smaller and cheaper, bandwidth getting more abundant and cheaper, storage essentially unlimited, and processing power growing rapidly, you come to understand what the concept of “Big Data” means. Everyone — and lots of things, machines, appliances and equipment of every type — will have the ability to sense, record, assess and communicate what is going on around them all the time.

We saw this also illustrated as the two Boston bombers were tracked down after a carjacking because their victim left his phone in the car they took and the police were able to use the signal to track it down. We know that cars themselves increasingly are sending out telemetry that lets people know where they are, how fast they are going, and where they are stopping. After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese government used car manufacturers’ data to know which roads were damaged, in use, or in need of repair. That’s a great application, as is crime-fighting.

But in the emerging era of connected cars, cars bursting with sensors and cameras, sending and receiving signals, real questions arise about who owns the data, who has a right to it, and what obligation companies that see the data might have to report law breakers or suspicious behavior.

Cyberattacks are also becoming more frequent, raising new questions about the nature of warfare. When is a kinetic response to an electronic incursion justified? How do the rules of conflict have to be rewritten? Imagine, moreover, the day after a cyberattack shuts down a subway system or befuddles an air-traffic control network. In a country like the United States, it is easy to imagine legislators taking the floor and demanding legislation that will make the Patriot Act look like it was written by the ACLU.

In the Big Data era, every company is a data company, and therefore has data assets and liabilities that it might never have assessed. Accountancies have no good or standard way of assessing, say, the value of the data an auto manufacturer may gather from the telemetry from vehicles it manufactures or that of the data on transactions tracked by a credit-card company on a balance sheet. Regulators hardly know how to deal with such cases. And individuals know, think and understand even less about how they will be affected.

Simultaneously, countries are starting to ask whether they can or should tolerate a big, free Internet that is a home to free speech and instant networks, a breeder of mass movements and a place for transactions that escape taxation. They also are questioning whether they wish to abide by international norms. The new trend is toward what might be called cyber-sovereignty or cyber-nationalism, breaking the world into separate, differently governed Internets.

We’re not even sure of the right questions to ask. For example, it seems likely that data flows might become more important to national economies than capital flows today or in the near future. How do we assess them? How do we measure the information assets of a nation, the Gross Knowledge Product?

We speak easily of “basic rights” like freedom of the press. But they took hundreds of years to evolve. “The press” is a Renaissance-era technology, with Gutenberg’s famous moveable type technology making its debut in 1450. The idea that restrictions on the press should be significantly limited didn’t really win adoption in the English-speaking world until almost 250 years later. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1791. And the issues associated with the rights and values questions posed by this new universally interconnected, data-dependent, data-interdependent world are many quantum levels of complexity past those tied to a free press. Further, while developments are moving at lightning pace, we are only just now starting to ask: What are the basic rights and responsibilities of citizens, consumers, businesses and governments in this new era?

Not only are we piecing together regulations and laws without benefit of the answers, but we run the risk of massive violations of what should be basic rights, of economic calamities, and even of wars if we miscalculate. Citizen by citizen, company by company, nation by nation and collectively as a planet it is a time for urgent introspection and an effort to establish common standards. The cost of not doing so will be forgoing the universal benefits — from education, politics, economics and social growth — that being part of this first global network might bring.

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy.