After 9/11, we worked on the economics of security, in an attempt to bring back some rationality. Next followed the economics of privacy, which Alessandro Acquisti and others developed to explain why people interact with social media the way they do. A year after the Snowden revelations, it’s time to talk about the economics of surveillance.
In a new paper I discuss how information economics applies to the NSA and its allies, just as it applies to Google and Microsoft. The Snowden papers reveal that the modern world of signals intelligence exhibits strong network effects which cause surveillance platforms to behave much like operating systems or social networks. So while India used to be happy to buy warplanes from Russia (and they still do), they now share intelligence with the NSA as it has the bigger network. Networks also tend to merge, so we see the convergence of intelligence with law enforcement everywhere, from PRISM to the UK Communications Data Bill.
There is an interesting cultural split in that while the IT industry understands network effects extremely well, the international relations community pays almost no attention to it. So it’s not just a matter of the left coast thinking Snowden a whistleblower and the right coast thinking him a traitor; there is a real gap in the underlying conceptual analysis.
That is a shame. The global surveillance network that’s currently being built by the NSA, GCHQ and its collaborator agencies in dozens of countries may become a new international institution, like the World Bank or the United Nations, but more influential and rather harder to govern. And just as Britain’s imperial network of telegraph and telephone cables survived the demise of empire, so the global surveillance network may survive America’s pre-eminence. Mr Obama might care to stop and wonder whether the amount of privacy he extends to a farmer in the Punjab today might be correlated with with amount of privacy the ruler of China will extend to his grandchildren in fifty years’ time. What goes around, comes around.