Big Data and International Relations

| December 2015
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From November 26 to 29, 2008, ten heavily armed members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Kashmiri separatist group, attacked several public sites in Mumbai, India, with automatic weapons and grenades, killing 164 people and wounding three hundred. This was one of the first known instances of terrorists employing powerful search algorithms such as Twitter’s or the link analysis used in Google’s PageRank system, which allowed LeT members to access information from massive data pools in real-time. During the attacks, an LeT operations center based in Pakistan communicated with the terrorists via satellite and GSM phones to provide them with open-source intelligence. From the operations center, LeT members data mined the Internet and social media, tapping into the power of Big Data to provide the attackers with an intelligence advantage over Indian law enforcement agencies. The attackers were thereby kept up to date on the status of the Indian government’s response and even received personal profiles of the hostages they took in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel.

Ironically, counterterrorism agencies are relying on the same technological advances to stop similar attacks from occurring. For example, the U.S. military is developing drones that, empowered by the combination of facial recognition software and vast databases of face-tagged photos, are able to identify individuals even in crowds—leading to what experts call hyperpersonalized warfare. Furthermore, using data-mining techniques, trend spotting, and sentiment analysis, experts in the area of predictive policing and intelligence analysis are hoping to distill the indicators and to identify the anomalies that would help predict terrorist attacks, counteract organized crime groups, and, at the same time, save resources—and potentially lives—by employing targeted interventions.

Big Data increasingly affects politics in manifold ways. With the ascendance of cyberspace as an important domain of daily activity, international politics has already experienced technology-driven change. Big Data unveils new dimensions to these changes, which we as political scientists and observers of international affairs are only now beginning to comprehend. It changes power distributions and thereby some basic assumptions of international relations theory, and its analytics will increasingly inform international relations research and policymaking. It has created both new opportunities and threats in areas such as humanitarian aid, development, and international peace and security. As hardware becomes better and cheaper, and as open-source software and database search and analysis services become more widely available, the power of Big Data is also increasingly at the disposal of small enterprises and individuals. Its ascendance in all aspects of social and political life has also sharpened important questions about global Internet governance.

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Category: Essay, Issue 29.4

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