Big Data, Big State  
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Big data is all the rage nowadays. It is supposed to revolutionize both science and business. The challenge of storing, processing and using the huge amount of information now being made available by our increasingly frequent communications, the Internet, social media and the billions of sensors around the world is surely complex. All the same, we are already generating and using a huge amount of data. The Large Hadron Collider, to pick just one example, is collecting and processing information from 150 million sensors delivering observations roughly about 40 million times per second.

But the state is not to be left behind.

Big data is also whetting the appetite of the state all around the world. With the control of increasing amounts of information, the state can become both more powerful and more intrusive — if it wished and were permitted to do so.

The optimistic perspective would be that if political institutions are sufficiently inclusive, the state will be restrained in its use of information and will only collect, process and utilize the information that it is tasked to by its citizens.

The pessimistic take would be that it is in the genes of the state to control as much and to attempt to become as powerful and intrusive as possible.

Alas, the US evidence so far is more consistent with the pessimistic view.

The recent revelations about the PRISM program of the National Security Agency, showing huge amounts of secret data collection from nine major Internet services and metadata from phone calls show an insatiable appetite for information from the US state and government agencies — ostensibly to stop terrorist attacks, but perhaps for much more.

Looked at from this perspective, another possibility also arises: if this nascent Big State will increasingly try to dominate and control information in the age of Big Data, then it will also tend to take a hard-line attitude against anybody challenging its ability to collect and control this information. If so, perhaps the shock-and-awe attacks by persecutors and agencies against whistle-blowers and rival peddlers of information, such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden, shouldn’t be a surprise.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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