Networks – Human & Technological

Much of this blog has focused on the value of human communication, how understanding different viewpoints is crucial to political analysis and policy-making.   I’ve continued on this path in Malta, most recently with the help of the wonderful team of people at the US Embassy. This week, the American Ambassador to Malta, Her Excellency Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley and her husband Gerard, graciously hosted an afternoon tea in my honor at their beautiful home.  With a gathering of impressive individuals from all areas  – IT, finance, commerce, and security – it was another one of those rare occasions that being a Fulbright-Schumaner delivers.

But when you think about privacy or data you cannot help but think about the importance of another type of communication – technology.  It is a constant, and yet mostly silent,  presence – the stuff that makes it all ‘happen.’

I’m doing my best to understand the technology because without it humans would still be communicating writing letters instead of using telephones and computers.*   Right now I’m reading a lot about the fiber optic cables that transmit data.  There is a massive superhighway of tangible bits and bobs that connect us to the internet and a host of other means of communication, which is illustrated in a pretty stunning way at the Submarine Cable Map website.  The Oxford Internet Institute made an effort to create an “Internet Tube Map” (Apologies to Senator Ted Stevens) from this information to give you an idea the types of the physical networks through which our data travels (there are others like satellites, too).  Then there’s the matter of the hubs and servers that direct, store, and process that data.  As a Smithsonian article on author Andrew Blum’s book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internetexplains there are some definite geographical centers that are crucially important, and most of them are in the US.

So the internet seems everywhere and no where at once.  We have cables crisscrossing the globe, some in international waters where no one presumably has jurisdiction, but in the end they end up on someone’s sovereign ground.  I mention this because those lines are placed and owned by telecommunications entities, private companies, and governments, and used by a myriad of clients all of which reside somewhere.

So, who governs that data?

This is a difficult question with an ‘it depends’ answer.  Does it depend on where that data originates?  Does it matter where that data is stored?  What about which provider(s) own(s) the network?  Is it the company’s or the individual’s? Is it up for grabs in international waters (apparently, yes and as evidenced in this article from 2001 that is not a new ‘revelation’)?

I am particularly keen on understanding the technological network because international finance as we know it today exists because of it.  Internally, financial institutions depend on their IT software and hardware systems to run smoothly so they can place orders, record transactions, analyse client data, and report to regulatory and other authorities.   When it comes to transaction data outside the firm most financial institutions lease that service from telecom providers, who will pass that data through those internet tubes.  That one transaction might be handled and processed by more than a few entities and all this might occur in several different states.  The client might be German, the company might be American, and the data might travel to subsidiaries and partners in Belgium or the UK, who all use different ICT providers, and it will travel over a few more tubes in less than a minute.

When there’s a security breach by one of the links in this chain, or authorities in one state issue a subpeona to the firm or the provider then you can start to see why data governance gets complicated.  How can you make sure that the right people are asking for the right data for the right purposes when it could be intercepted by so many people?  And who is ultimately responsible? This is, incidentally, a serious concern of many Europeans who note that the current Directive and proposed Regulation still does not put equal responsibility upon data controllers (i.e. banks, businesses) and processors (ie. ICT providers, clearing houses).

I can’t answer these questions in a post, you’ll have to wait for the book, but my purpose here is to point out that we cannot lose sight of the technology or the codes that connect them. These physical and syntactical infrastructures connect us, and they are inseparable because they make the whole thing ‘go.’  And at the same time, they cannot be separated from the human element either because their development is shaped by the society and culture from which they emerge.

Communication is part machine, but it is guided by human needs and relationships.

At the end of the month I’ll be in Rome for a conference about internet governance and I’m hoping that some of these questions are addressed.  In the meantime, I’m doing more reading and writing and thinking about those ever present networks…


*You should still learn to write letters by the way.  Unfortunately, it is a dying art.  I implore you to at least keep the personally written thank you note alive and work on your penmanship. Next time I go abroad, I have decided to bring stationary because sometimes that thank you email just doesn’t seem appropriate.