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Big Data and the Digital Disobedience

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Introduction

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The weak protest against mass surveillance through foreign and national intelligence services in Germany comes as a surprise. Most people do not really believe that they posses any information worth gathering. But does insensitive data still exist?

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You are at a party and record a short video. It shows you boisterously. Afterwards, you upload the video onto the internet. Many of us leave such digital footprints, but only few can imagine that these can be used to calculate one’s own creditworthiness. The German private credit bureau SCHUFA works on such kind of projects.

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Not only the various public authorities take advantage of Big Data. Private companies are using our data as well. Companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft show great interest in the availability of so-called metadata because the structure and pattern of the data has become much more important than its specific content. It is more interesting to know how you reached a website than to know what it displays. This kind of acquisitiveness also carries risks for protest actors.

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Big Data

The analyst Doug Laney described the challenges of data growth as being three-dimensional. These three dimensions describe the growing volume of data as well as the simultaneous increase in the speed of data acquisition and processing. This generates highly variable data. Big Data analyzes the available data altogether and is optimized for unstructured and inconsistent data.

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The first time the term Big Data was used was in 1970 in an essay on water depths. Over the years, Big Data became increasingly important for the development of hardware and software. However, there is no long research tradition on the subject. This is due to the large amount of research disciplines working with big data. As a result, the formation of a global research community is difficult. Social sciences are concerned with the impact of Big Data on politics and society.

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Researchers are studying various elements. Economists see Big Data as an attack on existing business models and give advice on how to protect their brands. The natural sciences utilize the large amount of data to better understand climate change. Political scientists analyze Chinese media and thereby interrupt censorship. Consequently, change is taking place. Computational humanities use Big Data to respond to the problem posed by the millions of books and sources that researchers cannot read and comprehend anymore.

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The efficient storage, distribution and delivery of large amounts of data is still a problem. Often, there is a large uncertainty in the data, because it often comes from insecure sources. In many cases, the data that is collected for future processing is not related to a real question. The prevailing credo is to collect the data as a precaution. In addition, data protection is perceived as a major cost factor. Finally, anonymizing procedures are complicated to program.

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Edward Snowden’s exposure of the surveillance programs PRISM and Tempora showed for which purposes Big Data can be used. The intelligence service’s huge database systems store dozens of Petabytes (1 Petabyte = 1.000.000.000.000.000 Byte) of communication flows. Public institutions collect the data of millions of people – without their knowledge and consent. Internet enterprises do the same in the interest of their advertising customers. While protest in Germany remains restrained, net activists try to change these circumstances.

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Digital Disobedience

Hegemonic surveillance submits net activists to social control; Typically, protest actors gather in movements or organize in parties. Of late, they go two different ways. Either they try to realign society’s center or they demand liberation from centralized (algorithmic) paternalism, thus, the establishment of new areas that are independent from the center. Thanks to the Chaos Computer Club Germany’s hacker community is strong and activists feel encouraged by Snowden’s announcements. Other initiatives represent a reservoir for the concentrated dissatisfaction of the internet-based protest movement.

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My doctoral thesis’s point of origin is the normative appreciation that justified civil disobedience is an option for resistance. Accordingly, Digital Disobedience would be an internet-focused version of the same phenomenon and therefore a justifiable form of opposition within a liberal democracy. In this regard, Snowden’s actions would be justified and could not be criminalized – not even in reference to security. It is grotesque that internet protest actors have been sentenced to long imprisonment or are struggling with extradition proceedings. At the same time, they take refuge in countries such as Russia, China or Ecuador, all of which are no liberal democracies. Apparently because western democracies perceive their exposures as a major security threat and not as a necessary democratic measure to establish publicity.

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The disobedience’s civility is displayed through the fact that it is non-violent and public. To the same extent, whistleblowers argue in favor of their exposure of secrets and thereby advance the price for certain kinds of politics through their measures of disobedience. My primary supervisor Professor Dr. Heinz Kleger has already dealt with this in his book entitled “Der neue Ungehorsam: Widerstände und politische Verpflichtung in einer lernfähigen Demokratie” back in 1993. As editor of a relevant journal, Dr. Ansgar Klein concerns himself with various forms of social movements. Therefore, he plays an important role as my secondary supervisor.




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Activists revealing the global surveillance practices are increasingly coming under pressure. They are especially threatened by Big Data. Protest actors are losing their data sovereignty; data profiles are collected once and then used again and again. This limits their potential for action and makes new measures of disobedience more difficult. The hegemonic surveillance practices submit net activists to social control and justifies this with the "War on Terror".

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Bavaria is actively practicing “predictive policing”. The program “precobs” has been fed with data on break-ins for some time. A company from Oberhausen continuously refines the software. By now, the forecasting technology is able to predict the Bavarian neighborhood in which the next felony can be expected. The police utilizes this knowledge to reinforce its presence in regions of risk. These are technologies that can also be used and already have been used against unwanted protests.

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Conclusion

My doctoral thesis deals with Big Data techniques, shows their potential risk for actors of digital disobedience and examines the social tension between security and freedom in the network. I aim to answer the following question: How does hegemonic data processing (Big Data) threaten net activists and their digital disobedience?

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