Information Ownership and Materiality in an Age of Big Data Surveillance
Can private data “havens,” localized servers, and offline infrastructure empower secure and private user control over data? Contrasting Sealand's counter-surveillance policies with the NSA's Utah Data Center mass surveillance apparatus, the authors analyze how control of the physical location of data centers shapes the possibilities of data agency and ownership. They note that to whom data belongs has become regulated asymmetrically through technological capacity rather than through socially articulated norms or deliberative legal processes. They offer a number of policy approaches to enhance the democratic potential of information stewardship, but question whether any are sufficient to subvert the power of agencies such as the NSA.
Taking up a full block in the New York City neighborhood of Chelsea, 111 Eighth Avenue is the city's third-largest building and has been owned by Google since 2010. Google purchased the building, which had already been the site of its New York headquarters, in an effort to house its expanding sales and engineering workforce while also making “a great real estate investment in a thriving neighborhood and a fantastic city.”1 The location of Google's building also happens to be a massive communications network nodal point; a long-time telecom “carrier hotel,” 111 Eighth Avenue had been leased by several telecom and data-center companies taking advantage of its extensive system of fiber cables.2 Many of those leases have not since been renewed by current building owner Google, hinting at the way that private companies exercise control over not only the immaterial platforms of networked communication online, but also the offline infrastructures of communication—in this case, one of the world's most important centers of networked data.
Although they feel ephemeral in practice, data transmission and cloud storage are tethered to real, physical, and expensive infrastructures; built artifacts that are subject to traditional ownership rights and territorial jurisdiction even though they subtend a supposedly borderless web of information. The application of proprietary regimes to networked information has long been the subject of digital copyright debates,3 but those debates have not tended to look at the politics of ownership in relation to the physical network infrastructures that shape contemporary data transmission and storage. Particularly in an age of “big data”—large-scale data sets that get cross-referenced and analyzed algorithmically to generate supposedly new insights and sources of valuable information4—the vast quantities of information stored and the computing power required to analyze it necessitate an inquiry into the physical manifestations of data within traditional frameworks for property ownership. As in the example of Google in New York, much of this ownership stems from private companies and represents private, rather than public, interests, embedded in everyday life.
This paper examines two geographically bound and physically located examples of data storage in relation to the urgent political ramifications of personal information ownership, as indicated in the ongoing revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) extensive surveillance practices. Importantly, this US government agency—along with others around the world, particularly the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK—intentionally design their surveillance programs to exploit the “backdoors” of private communication platforms like Google and Facebook. Taking advantage of the way that, with face and speech recognition technologies, language analysis, cross-database inference tools, video search functionality, and real-world behavioral extraction tools, our activities become data through such platforms, the NSA has sought to intercept and collect this living record of human interaction for pervasive surveillance, as manifested in its cross-referenced databases that exemplify the current big data moment.5 Clicks, uploads, and voices are collected, removed from context, and entrusted to a superhuman algorithm to perpetually aggregate, make sense of, correlate, and render data as evidence, for example, in the Department of Homeland Security's Watchlist Service.
Such services and surveillance programs rely on physical means of controlling and indeed owning information, in the context of both private companies whose business models depend on data collection and public institutions seeking disciplinary control. The intent of this paper is to draw attention to the ways in which the materialities of data infrastructures inform and limit the grid of possibilities for agency and alternatives, which, in turn, shape the politics and laws informing ownership, access, transparency, privacy, and freedom. In so doing, we take up a provocation suggested by a headline in the investigative news magazine Mother Jones in August 2013, “The World's Most Notorious Micronation Has the Secret to Protecting Your Data from the NSA.”6 While the headline served to revive interest in the micronation of Sealand as an independent data storage alternative, further analysis in this paper seeks to position this utopian investment as a way of reimagining how control and ownership over data might bend existing regulatory norms. As such, we contrast the NSA's Utah Data Center against HavenCo Ltd.'s Sealand, through case studies that interrogate the politics of how and where data are stored, who has access or ownership of information as physical commodity, how control and circumvention of networked communication inform everyday life, and how governance models play into the dynamics of information ownership. In addition to showing the continuing discursive salience of traditional asymmetric property regimes, these cases also highlight moments of disruption that maintain a belief in the democratic potential of data stewardship.
Case 1: Utah Data Center
In late 2013, the NSA opened its massive data storage center located in Bluffdale, Utah, dedicated to amassing big data for surveillance ends, in the US and beyond. The opening had been delayed by over a year due to a series of electrical failures—at the rate of almost one per month for that year—with blown circuits melting the appliances.7 This delay evidenced some of the material limitations of mass data storage, but it also coincided with the series of surveillance revelations sparked by Edward Snowden's release of NSA classified documents to journalists at The Guardian and The Washington Post in June 2013. At a moment when the public was becoming more aware of the scope of the agency's surveillance programs, its establishment of this new data center, designed to “intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world's communications,”8 was not uncontroversial.
The Utah Data Center's physical structure is best highlighted not by the agency itself, but through a parody website that invites users and researchers to explore a still image of the center, at high resolution, which conveys the immensity of the facility.9 The 100,000-square-foot data storage area makes up only 10% of the overall structure of a million square feet, most of which is occupied by cooling and power equipment. Estimates of the center's storage capacity vary, but one suggests that the site will be able to hold about 12 exabytes (an exabyte equals one trillion terabytes) of information.10 This amount of storage is required only for direct access to cables, or large amounts of live data streams “coming from everywhere.”11 Everywhere, in this case, means more traditional espionage sources such as telephone records and bugs, along with sources facilitated by a combination of intentional and unintentional backdoors in the private web platforms of companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and Apple, accessed through the notorious PRISM program that showed a degree of cooperation on the part of many tech firms.12 As noted by Mark Andrejevic and Kelly Gates, the NSA uses its assumed authority to collect data at an industrial scale—data that includes both content and metadata, temporal and locative information about senders, and receivers attached to the content.13 Moreover, NSA programs like XKeyscore are designed to collect that information in real time, exploiting not only technical backdoors but legal loopholes as well.14
Despite these very real attempts at capturing endless data streams, little has been divulged about the NSA's capacity to make sense of the information it gathers. A “big data” approach demands that tools and technologies be able to digest and effectively decipher intelligible connections, beyond simple code breaking.15 Such advancements are rarely mentioned amid the fine details about the center's storage capacity. As it is for most large-scale data centers now in place, the bulk of the facility's infrastructure is used to manage its always on, always available, perpetual feed,16 including water treatment, cooling systems, generators for backups and power substations.
Using this expansive architecture, the NSA facility anticipates intercepting, hosting, and processing immeasurable amounts of data. However, with an eye on Moore's law (the notion that computing power—and the data it yields—doubles every 12 to 18 months), the facility itself cannot contain all the data anticipated in the near future. Even in the present, and considering the new facility built to these ends, not all that data consumed is to be backed up at the Utah center. Consider the XKeyscore real-time interception program, which according to Greenwald “is continuously collecting so much Internet data [estimated at over 20 terabytes per day] that it can be stored only for short periods of time.”17 To address this limitation, the NSA attempts to filter out “interesting” bits of information that can be stored for longer periods in different storage facilities. The NSA spreads and duplicates storage across multiple locales in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, and Hawaii, for example, and including new facilities in a sizeable expansion at its headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland (scheduled to open in 2016). During the Obama Administration, the NSA has created a colossal network of backup hard drives ensuring that failure at one facility is easily recovered from another.18
While the NSA has kept the specific purpose of the Utah Data Center classified, more information about its operations exists through a parody website that features a doctored photo of the facility, draped with the slogan, “If you have nothing to Hide, You have nothing to Fear” (Figure 1).
This parody site, termed the Domestic Surveillance Directorate, claims to exist to defend our (US) nation, secure the citizens, and promote transparency. Inventing the center's apt-sounding code name, “Bumblehive,” the site notes that it is the first “Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cyber-Security Initiative (IC CNCI),” a data center designed to monitor citizens’ data—“to easily turn the huge volume of incoming data into an asset to be exploited”—in order to protect the nation. Technical specifications are made available to the public to explain the scope of the project, measuring data is “zettabytes,” powered by “massive” super computers, and rendering calculations at the inconceivable speed of “petaflops.” Code-breaking promises to get even more efficient by 2018, with the introduction of the “exaflop machine.” These are all verified facts by longtime NSA commentator, James Bamford, who explains that data collection is an easy present-day activity, while the ability to codebreak and engage in sophisticated cryptoanalysis is something the NSA anticipates being able to do in the future within its increasingly massive pool of data to cross-reference.19 In the spoof, the point about scale and scope is made, if only through measurements worded in ways few of us can comprehend, beyond human calculability.
The language of the site is persuasive if not overtly provocative, and feeds the sense of urgency typical of the Snowden revelations. As such, it may not be immediately obvious that the site is, in fact, a spoof. There is no such thing as a Domestic Surveillance Directorate, beyond this parody of the NSA. The site's slogan—which can more easily be read as a threat—is necessarily linked to the material infrastructures and ownership regimes that enable and justify the underlying politics (and false logic) of “protection” through mass surveillance.
At first glance, the site appears to be official, duplicating the government design aesthetic and the NSA's site, and even retaining many of the original hyperlinks for navigation. The Whois Lookup and IP information divulges little of who is behind the “mockument,” but its origin was revealed by Wired's March 2012 story on domestic surveillance that sparked the interest in the site's creator.20 At the time it was (by the creator's own admission) an over-the-top parody, made all too real and believable by Snowden's revelations in the following year. Forbes also reaffirmed the spoof site's accuracy with its headline, “The Definitive NSA Parody Site Is Actually Informative” and accompanying story that points out the parody site's commitment to “secure the future,” which is the NSA's actual tagline.21 The site thus serves as an entry point into the discourse and tactics of activists, while it also offers useful information about the extent of the center as a physical artifact shaping information ownership and infrastructure.
Storage and colocation centers, as secure physical infrastructures where data communications media converge and become interconnected, are central to our understanding of the Internet as material. However, surveillance in the form of social media, advertising, or espionage have all revealed that these storage sites—arguably easy targets—also downplay the complexity of the circulation of data. The materiality of the Internet is further complicated by modes of data interception in hardware and software alike, the technical backdoors of information infrastructure. While some of the NSA's programs are designed to purposefully implement surveillance tools within technologies intended to serve other ends, a wider discussion has now emerged questioning whether all connected devices and platforms form an overarching surveillance apparatus that rests on being simultaneously intrusive and voluntary.
In No Place to Hide (2014) journalist Glenn Greenwald explains how the NSA routinely intercepted “routers, servers, and other computer network devices being exported from the United States before they are delivered to the international customers,”22 without awareness from the companies whose products were tampered. Cisco, a company that designs, manufactures, and sells networking equipment was embroiled in the scandal. Also accused, UPS, Cisco's longstanding shipping company, claims it did not allow government officials to inspect its packages unless it was legally required to, and that no warrant from the NSA was presented to inspect technology-related shipments. If UPS packages were tampered with, then that would presumably happen behind the highly protected and sealed off area of US Customs, or, more speculatively, in stations en route to customer destinations. One example of this system was provided by a core Tor developer, Seattle-based Andrea Shepard, who posted a message to Twitter with a screen grab of the Amazon tracking tool which renders visible the possible detour of surveillance. Here, Shepard highlights the lack of subtlety involved in the tracking itself, but her humor belies a now widespread understanding of the invasiveness of surveillance as inherent to our material communication and transportation infrastructures.
While these accusations imply a hugely premeditated and complex management operation from the NSA, the potential of mass surveillance beyond just this one government agency no longer seems impossible, implausible or fictional. Cisco did respond to the allegations in a blog post, arguing for middle ground between surveillance and individual freedom but ultimately accusing the NSA of overreach.23 And, in light of these allegations, several companies also implicated in the PRISM program—AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo—have come together as the “voices of reform” for global government surveillance by proposing that governments endorse and enact principles that keep surveillance to specific and known targets, be subject to strong checks and balances, favor transparency and collaboration, and acknowledge the fluidity of borders for the online environment.24
While different forms of backlash against mass surveillance seem to have developed since the Snowden revelations, the growth of data collection and storage practices continues. Particularly troubling for privacy advocates is the leaky nature of contemporary storage practices. Despite its denials, the NSA has been charged with having pioneered a so-called “cloud-centric” technology that enables outside agencies “reach remotely into its enormous data pools,” highlighting the role of architecture in materializing data circulation and undermining its security.25 The data itself, including Skype calls, travel documents, Internet searches, online purchases, financial information, health records, smartphone data and other networked information and metadata, resides in this cloud storage software. From cloud services, the NSA intends to store and process data with increasing speed, precision, and implicit cooperation of social media platforms and software companies.26 Since the fallout from the Snowden revelations, however, companies such as Google have been resisting the NSA by using encryption to render the process of email interception, among other things, more difficult. The motivation for companies is not so much to protect privacy, in any activist sense, but rather to ensure that they do not lose users who rightly fear government monitoring.
Given the shortcomings of current legislation around consumer privacy that tends to lag behind technological advancements,27 the bulk of the responsibility for ensuring the protection and exercise of ownership rights over personal information rests with the user. To work around making data available to the NSA, users would have to become increasingly anonymous and navigate in the obscurity of hidden network services, use peer-to-peer mesh networks, encrypt all communications, or reserve computers for research that never go online.28 Of course, many of the actions to prevent being tracked become fodder for the NSA, whose mentality is too close for comfort to the idea that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear,” thus targeting such suspicious activity.29 And, more to the point, much of what is involved in keeping personal information out of the NSA's hands is beyond the grasp, reach, and energy level of most users. It's the very impossibility of opting out that speaks to the Internet as foremost a web of surveillance; a platform borne of military research and now most effectively serving those ends, with increasing pride and with a rehearsed, bragging transparency. While the efforts of the NSA must remain top secret and classified, the agency also seems unable to contain its excitement over the power and control big data offers, boasting that it collects 50% more data than Google does on a daily basis.30
The notion of transparency is pervasive in privacy debates because it underscores a default position of a complete yet impossible demand for openness. This stance is in fact counter to much of our daily functioning as a society, as well as (and especially) the functioning of government—and necessarily so.31 Privacy is not about resisting exposure so much as it is about an inherent human right to not have to justify one's need for freedom.32 Privacy and freedom are inextricably linked because, unlike the parody NSA website slogan suggests, privacy can be breached even when nothing is revealed or hidden.33 This privacy challenge lies at the crux of some of the problems inherent in drafting effective public legislation, just as it complicates people's normative expectations of privacy and ownership of personal information online.34
Sharing the goals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's post-9/11 “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the George W. Bush Administration—vehemently rejected by the American public over a decade ago—the Utah Data Center manifests as a fortress that stands above public demand and out of the public's reach, reinforcing the “big data divide” that characterizes contemporary digital rights debates.35 At this point, to whom data belongs when it circulates online becomes regulated asymmetrically through technological capacity rather than through socially articulated norms or deliberative legal processes.
Case 2: Sealand
In contrast to the sprawling million-square-foot Utah Data Center in the middle of a desert, consider the Principality of Sealand: a 60-foot tower rising out of the North Sea, in 24 feet of water, six miles east of the industrial port of Felixstowe on the southeast coast of England (Figure 2).
The Principality of Sealand and its parent HavenCo Ltd. is a self-contained data fortress located on a defunct antiaircraft platform in the waters of the cold North Sea, established as a data center in 2000. Sealand offers a distinct contrast to the Utah Data Center, and not only due to its unique history: initially the island served as one of four Maunsell Naval Sea Forts deployed by Britain during the Second World War; abandoned in 1956, it was adopted for pirate radio broadcast until 1967. At that time, taking advantage of a loophole in international law called “dereliction of sovereignty,” former British army major Roy Bates seized the tiny platform and declared it the independent nation of Sealand, proclaiming himself prince. Since 2010, after some setbacks that led to Sealand's closure for a number of years, HavenCo has resurrected the site and revisited its initial posturing as “an offshore, fat-pipe data haven that answers to nobody.”36
HavenCo “2.0” poses a necessary challenge to “the edges of our geopolitical economy,” and to the “collect-it-all” mentality of open communication offered through and facilitated by different material and infrastructural constitutions.37 However, as a quasi-independent server farm for more than a decade, it has failed time and again—as detailed below—at pushing the boundaries of what is legally and technologically possible within the aim of providing an “off-government” data storehouse. And while said to be notorious for a micronation doubling as a data haven, Sealand is still mostly unknown to the general public and remains obscure as a site of inquiry.
The majority of the documentation about Sealand emerges out of its cult-like citizenship paraphernalia—passports and t-shirts, alongside streams of journalistic and legal proceedings—that together inadvertently serve as a record of the floating haven's floundering attempts at branding itself as an alternative. Despite these limitations, the concept of the safe haven perseveres for the perceived lawlessness, and thus eradication of traditional ownership structures, that the island of data conjures.
Freedom from the Sea
Sealand, unlike the NSA's Utah Data Center that it is pitted against here, is rooted in principles of freedom, striving toward juridical independence.38 It puts forward a concept of data protection through the notion of a data “haven” or “island,” offering an interesting rejoinder to the Utah Data Center's firm grounding in distinctly American ideas of a “home-field advantage” for intercepting communications that traverse US-based networks.39
As something of a counter-surveillance site, Sealand offers itself as a metaphor for the detached and floating imaginaries of data, evocative of cloud storage and discourses of the immaterial, more than as a solution proper to the issue of the location and ownership of data. Sealand's slogan is “From the Sea: Freedom,” which, despite being much better intentioned than the NSA, also fails to live up to its own utopian vision of freedom. Its failures are in part a result of the legal loopholes it relies on to define itself as “independent,” which are tenuous at best (as outlined below). Sealand also fails as an alternative because of the very materiality of the Internet that connect the remote structure to mainland, banking on the general public's ignorance of, or seduction by, the promise of the cloud to facilitate the management of private data. The potential it boasts, however, and especially its vision for mesh networks and offline servers, certainly presents a more progressive notion of freedom as it relates to transparency and privacy.40
The promise of technology has always been intertwined with the discourse of freedom, further legitimating the crossover of technological systems across and into private and public space.41 At Sealand, the offshore container serves to distance people from their data, taking on the user's responsibility to save and dispose of data, while also inadvertently breaking the association between people and the data streams they generate. Unlike the NSA, Sealand offers to host and store data, not to aggregate from or sift through it. This significant procedural distinction between the two sites is fundamentally shaped by their distinct infrastructures that afford divergent mandates: surrendering data as opposed to visualizing it.
In contrast to the NSA, where the lack of privacy has meant a total yet involuntary relinquishing of control and ownership over our digital lives, the politics brought to surface by Sealand's base have become a perhaps more appropriate means by which to envision a fluid nature of privacy.
That being said, if Sealand, or the metaphor of lawless islands of data more generally, is our best collective attempt at protecting data from the NSA and maintaining control over online privacy, it can be argued that the concept of civil liberties has failed in light of the salience of Internet infrastructures on the shaping of legal and social norms.42
For example, consider the complicated history of the Principality of Sealand. First, as WWII sea fort, then an abandoned island adopted for pirate radio broadcast, and finally a declared independent state (however tentatively, and only loosely recognized as such). Media coverage of this history has noted how it serves to perpetuate a story about itself as an island of resistance, as a “hot place to hide data,”43 and currently, as holding “the Secret to Protecting Your Data From the NSA.”44 Sealand's HavenCo has taken advantage of this attention to propagate its message to protect. In a blog post from December 2013 titled “HavenCo—Protecting You And Your Family,” Sealand is explicitly positioned as an alternative to the NSA's dragnet approach under the guise of national security.45 According to the post, trail-free VPN services, encrypted online cloud storage, “technically minded” hosting packages, and forthcoming disaster recovery and cold storage on Sealand can all empower users to avoid having their information scrutinized at someone else's discretion by taking more ownership over their personal data. Arguably, since the Snowden revelations, more and more non-expert Internet users are turning to services such as the DuckDuckGo browser, GPG Tools and apps like Signal for encrypted communications, for example, as a precautions against warrantless surveillance by social media companies and the NSA alike.
The story of Sealand serves as an important metaphor for notions of ownership and territorial jurisdiction in relation to data protection. Sealand's legitimacy as an independent nation continues to be debated, particularly through convoluted legal parameters that define the island as a platform rather than territory proper. As reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, artificial platforms are not considered to be territory in the eyes of international law; however, permanent artificial land can claim territorial status if it is attached to a naturally formed area of land.
While the UK in 1987 expanded its territorial land claims to twelve miles, which now encompass the platform, Sealand occupies a liminal geographical space because it was founded before the UK claimed the waters in which it stands.46 Despite maintaining this relative independence, the expansion does render the UK accountable for its defense, should the platform trigger or become a target of attack by other countries.
The futility of Sealand's quest for independence—both as a geopolitical territory and as an independent node in global networks—has also been highlighted by the ways in which nations can exercise jurisdiction over their citizens in and through seemingly immaterial networks, and indeed, networks themselves can take on the political governance qualities of territories.47 But to simply point to the irony that Sealand relied on international law to define itself as an independent nation, to then insist on freedom from law overlooks the ways in which the rule of law in the age of the Internet is itself a matter of contention and constant renegotiation.48 Sealand, for all its storied anarchism and its failures, at the very least seems to demand a revisioning of the relationship between law, Internet infrastructure, and access to data.
Unlike the so-called Dark (or Deep) Web—construed as being, on the one hand, an anonymous network facilitating nefarious activities (such as access to drugs, child porn, guns, wildlife, gamble, hitmen, etc.), and on the other, a place for political dissidents and journalists in conflict countries to communicate without being tracked—Sealand complies with basic social norms through law.
Ironically, it was a disagreement about content hosting, or the bounds of acceptable law-breaking, that tore the company apart in 2002. The fortress owners, who were attached to their tenuous claim to sovereignty, and HavenCo's founders, who wanted to take advantage of the precariousness of the situation, had divergent views on the limits of (re)broadcasting DVD content.49 With this break, HavenCo existed in limbo up until the company became dormant in 2008. In 2010, HavenCo 2.0 resurfaced with the mandate to let people control their own data security, and again, to place freedom at the core of their activism.
New laws around the world remove so much of an individual's right to freedom and privacy that we want to give that back. It's not about protecting criminals, it's about helping law abiding citizens to avoid this unregulated dragnet surveillance.50
In an effort to thwart mass surveillance of the kind exercised by the NSA, the site reinforces the notion of multiple webs serving different purposes and featuring different levels of control over access. The darker version of the web cannot be accessed from a normal web browser. For example, Tor is the most popular deep web browser that allows users to navigate. onion domains without being monitored and where most transactions are done using bitcoins, a complex peer-to-peer cryptocurrency.
Evidenced in its provision of material support for deep web applications, Sealand's current operations remain true to its initial mission, which has in fact begun to make more sense and take on more urgency in light of the media attention around the NSA's multiple surveillance programs. If control and ownership are at the crux of privacy, they have been present in the discourse of Sealand's mission for over a decade. Its assertion of “freedom from the sea” does not imply preventing users to be in physical contact with their data (which it does) so much as it serves to insist on the “dispersability” of data managed at a distance.
It remains unclear which parts of Sealand's setup are independent and which rely on the existing infrastructure of the Internet, its cables and outposts. Regardless, HavenCo's goal of providing faster access through multiplying transit and peering agreements across the world, and rerouting data to other providers and satellite communications should those fail, shows the importance of dispersibility for being relocatable in case of shutdowns. This method is employed by other activist networks as well, most notably by the meshnet groups who have created an alternative communications infrastructure to the Internet.51 As a kind of off-the-grid framework, meshnets allow a community of users to communicate by connecting peer-to-peer, and thus bypassing the centralized Internet. Some configurations of the meshnet are considered more private and secure even if communications are not encrypted by default. As a concept, meshnets are congruent with Sealand politics in that they underscore issues of data ownership, security, privacy and net neutrality, rather than simply gaining access to open wireless networks. Building physical fiber-optic links to carry the heaviest traffic reinforces success in these networks. Similarly, over a decade ago, Sealand was able to prioritize laying fiber-optic cables to the fortress to further increase its efficiency and independence, ironically by linking itself to land. In its current instantiation, HavenCo 2.0's servers are located in the European Union and the United States (arguably too close for comfort to Fort Meade to really demarcate political boundaries) and use encryption keys to render servers useless, if necessary. It also relies on offline servers (i.e., cold stash data), which are increasingly becoming the best off-grid modality.
These current strategies represent a continuation of HavenCo's early vision, although it can be argued that the company has lost some of its more reactionary politics. In 2000, the fortress was equipped with two generators, a large fuel tank and enough food to endure a year-long blockade. As described by Harrison:
Nearly all of the seven 22-foot rooms inside each of the platform's support cylinders are being transformed into machine rooms, using the existing blast doors to withstand explosions. HavenCo is seeking to stuff the cylinders with enough data storage, servers and transaction processors to create a global networking hub.52
While HavenCo's customers could, in this early scheme, provide the company with their own equipment for installation in the fortress, it was definitive that the customers themselves would never have physical access to Sealand. Instead, customers could run servers remotely, determining for themselves the best route to take should a legal entity make a credible demand for their data. In this way, HavenCo radically re-envisioned data ownership in relation to control over data stewardship and destruction.
Sealand's positioning as an island simultaneously recognized by the law and operating outside of it perfectly captures an alternative materiality of information access when contrasted against the NSA's Utah Data Center. Increasingly, the trend toward managing the Internet based on local cultures, uses, and politics that Sealand and HavenCo manifested over a decade ago is resurfacing in the wake of the NSA surveillance revelations, and this shift enables the anticipation of new data infrastructures in the near future. Instead of changing laws around ownership and access to data, it seems more consequential to tweak the way information storage technologies interface with infrastructure and location.
When considering information ownership in relation to the materiality of the storage and network infrastructures that underpin the current explosion of “big data,” the digital copyright debate's questions about control over immanent copies get reframed and literally brought back down to earth in current disputes over territory, resources, and storage capacity. For example, following Larry Lessig's suggestion that copyright has become the most salient aspect of intellectual property regulation online, given the proliferation of copies that enable new freedoms in audience consumption and new attempts to control copying,53 we might pose the questions of how and where those copies are stored and what discursive investments get tied to those physical manifestations of information.
Likewise, the issue of access to data stored in cloud services shifts from the promotional discourse of easy availability to a more nuanced interrogation of who has access to cloud data and through what material means. Beyond simply the pragmatic question of control over routing through DNS servers and other Internet protocols,54 the issue here is how data becomes legible as power through the metaphors and physical structures associated with transmission and storage. In these ways the value of information extends not only from its interlinkages amid large data sets, but from its material location in physical infrastructures that act in line with the more longstanding political and economic values of real estate, resource allocation, and network ownership.
Beyond materiality itself, the important point to emphasize in both the cases of the Utah Data Center and Sealand is how the infrastructure challenges social and legal understandings of the rules that demarcate ownership and territory. The determination of boundaries and borders, traditionally established through diplomatic and legislative channels, threatens to be overturned to the technocratic elites—to return to this paper's opening vignette, Google's purchase of 111 Eighth Avenue effectively renders it the controller of both the physical network infrastructure as well as the platforms that interface between the infrastructure and its users, enabling the company to exert ownership and physically manifest its power over information across different levels of the web.
So how then to bolster the effectiveness of legislative checks on such asymmetrical, proprietary power structures underpinning information ownership? Two possible policy solutions illustrate the material articulation of these ideals: local servers and offline modalities.
For example, taking explicit and proactive measures, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pushed in 2013 for “new legislation that would seek to force Google, Facebook and other Internet companies to store locally gathered data inside Brazil.”55 What was being proposed by Brazil was, at the time, the most tangible tactic for dealing with the NSA's overreach in that it explicitly accounted for the location of servers in shaping policy. It also reinstated the material realities of the Internet, the cables and hubs that enable connectivity without felt limits. President Rousseff's left-wing Workers’ Party proposal demanded that foreign-based Internet companies maintain data centers inside Brazil to be governed by Brazilian privacy laws. However, March 2014 saw the bill dropped in a concession to hardline lobbying by Google and other major American tech companies.56 Nevertheless, under the new bill, companies like Google and Facebook will be subjected to Brazilian laws and courts when Brazilians are involved, even if the data is stored physically abroad.57
More rudimentary still, the German NSA committee (following Russia's lead) claims to be returning to electric typewriters to deal with sensitive materials, so as to have no trace tracked online.58 Reflecting an idealized nostalgia for the pre-Internet era, nostalgic precisely because this era of course also experienced information interception, Germany's interest in offline modalities betrays the sense that ownership over data still conjures traditional physical conceptions of ownership over concrete recordings of data as well as the artifacts that produce such recordings.
These two recent examples demonstrate that the space, place, and materials of communication constitute an important part of the regulatory debate about surveillance in a highly interconnected global network. However, localized Internet infrastructures and offline modalities do not inherently offer a means to protect against (or counter) mass surveillance, and they also may be difficult to take seriously given the embeddedness of networked communication in everyday life. For instance, the most widely used platforms such as Facebook and Google—both implicated in NSA surveillance through Prism—are not likely to lose significant numbers of users to alternative versions of connectivity since these pose apparent obstacles to the average user in terms of social stigma or perceived requirement technical knowledge.
As such, European leaders are looking toward alternative solutions within mainstream networked infrastructure, recalling the values of Sealand in their discussions of the need for a “euro cloud” to contain the circulation of EU citizens’ data within the continent, or presumably at least, outside of the reach of the US.59 While some European countries already require certain sensitive personal data to be stored locally, the notion of a domestic Internet is not yet widely adopted, mainly because it seems in contradiction with the decentralized mission for which the Internet was instated. Reflected in Tim Berners-Lee's “bill of rights” for the web, principles of “privacy, free speech and responsible anonymity” are necessary correctives to current Internet governance.60 The Internet works in no small part because of its always on, always available interoperability that enables international communication and exchange. That being said, this same technological mindset is what makes tracking so convenient, central, and—while dispersed—subject to the power of protocol to control networked communication.61
It remains to be seen how such legislative actions will impact the geopolitics of data storage, and how effectively an alternative infrastructure model such as Sealand can subvert the power of agencies like the NSA to own and control people's information. Looking to data islands like Sealand, or making islands out of lands otherwise connected, suggests that the technologies that constitute the Internet as immaterial and cloud-like have perhaps become too networked and dependent on material territory for their value. This dynamic between the material and immaterial reflects the paradoxical relationship that networked communication maintains with older power structures, such as the dominance of military-industrial outposts like the NSA.
Moreover, the dynamic reinforces the fact that, while the Internet seems to operate like magic for the average user, the consequences of surveillance and the breaches of privacy it enables continue to exert real, felt impacts on human life.
Thank you to the organizers and participants for the feedback at the workshop “Whose Information Is It Anyway? In Search of a New Balance” at the New America Foundation (September 10–12, 2014). Thank you also to Susan Nevelow Mart (at CU Boulder) for detailed feedback on an early draft, and to two anonymous reviewers.
- 3.James Boyle, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (New York: Penguin, 2004); Siva Vaidhyanathan, Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York: NYU Press, 2001).
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- 8.James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building the Country's Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say),” Wired Magazine, March 15, 2012, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_nsadatacenter/all/1.
- 10.Kashmir Hill, “Blueprints of NSA Data Center in Utah Suggest its Storage Capacity Is Less Impressive Than Thought,” Forbes, July 24, 2013, accessed July 12, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/07/24/blueprints-of-nsa-data-center-in-utahsuggest-its-storage-capacity-is-less-impressive-than-thought/.
- 11.Allan Friedman, quoted in Tony Semerad, “NSA in Utah: Mining a Mountain of Data,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 1, 2013.
- 12.Glenn Greenwald and Ewen McAskill, “NSA Prism Program Taps in to User Data of Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian, June 6, 2013, accessed July 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data.
- 13.Mark Andrejevic and Kelly Gates, “Big Data Surveillance”; see also Edward Snowden, “Here's How We Take Back the Internet,” TED Talk, March 2014, accessed August 17, 2014, https://www.ted.com/talks/edward_snowden_here_s_how_we_take_back_the_internet.
- 14.Glenn Greenwald, “XKeyscore: NSA Tool Collects ‘Nearly Everything a User Does on the Internet,’” The Guardian, June 6, 2013, accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/31/nsa-top-secret-program-online-data.
- 15.danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical Questions”; Andrejevic, “Big Data, Big Questions.”
- 16.Sean Cubitt, Robert Hassan, and Ingrid Volkmer, “Does Cloud Computing Have a Silver Lining?” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 1 (2011): 149-158; Mél Hogan, “Facebook Data Storage Centers as the Archive's Underbelly,” Television & New Media 16, no. 1 (2015): 3–18; Alix Johnson, quoted in Adam Fish, “Data Havens of Iceland. An Interview with Alix Johnson,” Savage Minds, February 6, 2014, accessed August 29, 2014, http://savageminds.org/2014/02/06/data-havens-of-iceland.
- 17.Glenn Greenwald, “XKeyscore.”
- 18.Tony Semerad, “NSA in Utah.”
- 19.Rory Carroll, “Welcome to Utah, the NSA's Desert Home for Eavesdropping on America,” The Guardian, June 14, 2013, accessed November 26, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/14/nsa-utah-data-facility.
- 20.James Bamford, “The NSA Is Building.”
- 21.Kashmir Hill, “The Definitive NSA Parody Site is Actually Informative,” Forbes, August 29, 2013, accessed July 12, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2013/08/29/the-definitive-nsa-parody-site-is-actuallyinformative/.
- 22.Bill Snyder, “Snowden: The NSA Planted Backdoors in Cisco Products,” InfoWorld, May 15, 2014, accessed October 8, 2014, http://www.infoworld.com/article/2608141/internetprivacy/snowden--the-nsa-planted-backdoors-in-cisco-products.html.
- 23.Mark Chandler, “Internet Security Necessary for Global Technology Economy,” Cisco Blogs, May 13, 2014, accessed September 27, 2014, http://blogs.cisco.com/news/internet-securitynecessary-for-global-technology-economy/.
- 25.Tony Semerad, “NSA in Utah.”
- 26.Glenn Greenwald and Ewen McAskill, “NSA Prism program.”
- 27.Leslie Regan Shade and Tamara Shepherd, “Viewing Youth and Mobile Privacy Through a Digital Policy Literacy Framework,” First Monday 18, no. 12 (2013): http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4807/3798
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- 29.Cory Doctorow, “If you read Boing Boing, the NSA considers you a target for deep surveillance,” Boing Boing, July 3, 2014, accessed August 27, 2014, http://boingboing.net/2014/07/03/if-you-read-boing-boing-the-n.html.
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- 34.Mark Andrejevic, “Big Data, big questions.”
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- 44.Thomas Stackpole, “The World's Most Notorious Micronation.”
- 46.Ann Harrison, “Data Haven.”
- 47.Rebecca MacKinnon, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 2012).
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- 49.Thomas Stackpole, “The world's most notorious micronation.”
- 50.Prince James Bates in Thomas Stackpole, “The World's Most Notorious Micronation.”
- 51.In addition to meshnets, routing practices of virtual private networking (VPNs), The Onion Router (TOR), the development of Hyperboria, and the recent use of FireChat in the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong are examples of activist networking and alternative communications infrastructures. See also: Alison Powell, “Argument-by-Technology: How Technical Activism Contributes to Internet Governance,” in Research Handbook on Governance of the Internet, ed. Ian Brown (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2013), 198–220.
- 52.Ann Harrison, “Data Haven.”
- 53.Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin, 2008).
- 54.Tamara Shepherd and Normand Landry, “Technology Design and Power: Freedom and Control in Communication Networks,” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 9, no. 3 (2013): 259–275.
- 55.Brian Winter, “Brazil's Rousseff Targets Internet Companies after NSA Spying,” Reuters, October 12, 2013, accessed August 17, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/12/net-ususa-security-snowden-brazil-idUSBRE98B14R20130912.
- 56.Cyrus Farivar, “In the Name of Security, German NSA Committee May Turn to Typewriters,” Ars Technica, July 14, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, http://arstechnica.com/techpolicy/2014/07/in-the-name-of-security-german-nsa-committee-may-turn-to-typewriters/.
- 57.Brian Winter, “Brazil's Rousseff.”
- 58.Cyrus Farivar, “In the Name of Security.”
- 59.Elizabeth Dwoskin and Frances Robinson, “NSA Internet Spying Sparks Race to Create Offshore Havens for Data Privacy,” The Wall Street Journal, (date unavailable), accessed June 15, 2014, http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052702303983904579096082938662594-lMyQjAxMTAzMDIwNzEyNDcyWj.html.
- 60.Jemima Kiss, “An Online Magna Carta: Berners-Lee Calls for Bill of Rights for Web,” The Guardian, March 12, 2014, accessed August 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/mar/12/online-magna-carta-berners-lee-web.
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