Big Tech and the intelligence power shift since MH17

Jason Stevens

Investigating MH17 unlocked the role of big data in assembling a criminal brief, pioneering the use of open-source intelligence.  

“I became interested in how big data was being used to automate and amplify disinformation efforts,” Dr Miah Hammond-Errey, a former director at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, tells editorial director James Riley during the latest Commercial Disco(very) episode. 

Fueling a PhD and later a book, Dr Hammond-Errey shared some big-picture ideas about the tech industry, specifically the impact of big data and emerging technologies on intelligence practices. 

She said there is a substantial shift in power from traditional governmental structures to big technology companies, creating complex interplays between security and technology. 

The concentration of data, analytics, and communication capabilities within a few multinational tech giants has altered the balance of power, raising questions about governance and oversight. 

“Many of these big tech companies are actually very young: they have the maturity and sophistication of teenagers,” Dr Hammond-Errey said. 

She advocates for a more mature approach to technology governance, incorporating responsibility, ethics, and long-term thinking shaped by 18 years working for the federal government and interviewing nearly 50 intelligence leaders and practitioners across Australia’s national intelligence community for her PhD and book.  

Dr Hammond-Errey is heartened by how AI is shifting that conversation to include more about AI governance, particularly at the corporate board level. 

“People worldwide are concerned about the great volume of data being concentrated either in government or industry.” 

In an age where every click, conversation, and comment generates data, she challenges us to rethink the framework of our digital existence, particularly regarding Australia’s role in the region and discussions around data sovereignty. 

“We have to be willing to pay a higher price for that, and that’s completely acceptable,” she asserts. Some data classes – healthcare, for instance – must be closely guarded.  

“Regarding the intelligence community, some information should not go offshore or even be connected to the internet.” 

Dr Hammond-Errey’s comments feed into her broader conclusions on data architecture and sovereignty: the intricate balance between local data storage and the global nature of analytical processing.  

“Pursuing analytical capabilities at the hyperscale probably means sending that data offshore,” she said, adding that over time, these data classes and their decisions become more apparent to regulators. 

Dr Miah Hammond-Errey

For instance, she argues storing social media data in Australia is impractical. The most straightforward, affordable approach is to allow data to circulate freely and without restrictions.  

Dr Hammond-Errey warns that segmenting the internet into isolated ‘data sovereign’ regions introduces complex challenges: its true potential is realised in its openness and universality. 

Australia can strategically position itself within ASEAN here, in contrast to the approaches seen in the US and smaller nations.  

“Broader technology policy reveals our region has a lot to offer,” suggesting that superpowers like the US grapple with regulatory limitations shaped by their unique legal and cultural context, such as the First Amendment.  

This contrast extends to Europe’s regulatory model, which Australia might find instructive yet unsuitable for its regional dynamics. 

“There are fascinating conversations around how countries like Indonesia, India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines approach cybersecurity,” she explains, pointing out how Australia can influence the discourse on digital governance in its immediate region and beyond. 

She endorses the government’s efforts of the eSafety Commissioner as a pivotal mechanism in confronting and mitigating digital threats and harms — a positive, proactive move to protect citizens. 

Likewise, recalibrating the balance of power within the cyber domain under a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy and action plan marks a significant step towards securing the nation’s digital infrastructure.  

Moving in this direction advances Australia’s national interests. It shapes a more secure, resilient, and equitable global digital ecosystem. 

“Yes, we are a small market, but equally, we can legislate and regulate in ways that are Australian-specific to our context,” she surmises. 

Dr Hammond-Errey sees value in multilateral forums and regional alliances with others, even if the result is imperfect. 

“We absolutely have to deal with the world that we have—many of these platforms that we rely on for everyday functions are owned and operated overseas. But that doesn’t mean we must accept things that contradict our Australian values,” she said.

Ultimately, she believes in the principle of ‘secure-by-design’ as a cornerstone for the future of technology and security.  

Dr Hammond-Errey emphasises that the rapid development and integration of emerging technologies, from quantum computing to synthetic biology, necessitate a foundational security approach for big tech and intelligence. 

“Many of these technologies are just not created with security in mind,” she points out, underscoring the importance of integrating security considerations from the outset. 

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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