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Weekend Special: The Save Haven for Data

September 9, 2011

In 1999 Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon was published. There are many entertaining and great ideas in that book. I’d like to pick on one specifically and look into the possibility to execute this idea today, more than a decade later, – The Safe Haven for Data.

Basic idea

The safe haven for data should be a place where data privacy is the highest value and safeguarded at all cost. In the book it is situated on a fictitious sultanate on an island in the Pacific. There are two motives explained in the book:

  • ·        Holocaust Education and Avoidance Pod (HEAP) media
  • ·        Anonymous Internet banking using a new digital currency aka electronic money

The safe data haven is a huge underground data center with lots of storage and great connections to the main data network cables in the Pacific. It could be at least technically compared with what todays cloud computing data centers would be.

The key to the idea is the fictitious sultanate guaranteeing absolute privacy together with strong encryption. The data stored in this data haven would be safe. Even governments and governmental agencies could not gain access.  In that sense it is the counter idea to what many fear in today’s world of cloud computing– authorized/unauthorized access by the US government where authorized refers to the Patriot Act.

Benefits

The rebellions around the world but especially in the Middle East have shown the value of giving the people access to communication methods outside of the control of their government. Also there have been numerous tries to block phone calls, text messaging and internet access from any devices at locations of uproar. A safe data haven would allow ensuring data privacy and protection of those publishing content. This is where the idea of HEAP starts but does not end. If you want to get a deeper view on HEAP I recommend that you read the book.

Also many companies would value bringing their IT ship into a safe haven with guaranteed security.

Another benefit would be a currency of the 21st century that is not as unpredictable as the Dollar, the Euro or the Yen have been in the last decade. A currency not controlled by a single country (but by whom? See challenges below).

Challenges

The challenges can be structured in three different areas

Moral Issues

The data haven would attract especially unlawful operations and customers in the first place. That is also pointed out by the author. Today that would even create a bigger resistance as we seem to be in a phase of civilization where the fear of few is valued higher than the privacy of many. So giving the unlawful, from burglar to terrorist and from internet high school mobbing to the illegal copying of intellectual property a platform of safe storage and communications would create at least a debate if not the prohibition of usage. So it is a judgment call whether you would grant child molesters a place to store pictures or deny the masses of people being suppressed by regimes and dictators the means to be informed and to act coordinated.

Technical Issues

First of all you need to find not one but at least two locations for the sake of redundancy. As the Tsunamis have proven there are uncalculated risks that even today could hit. Secondly you need to get real bandwidth into these places. In the book the fictitious island could be strategically placed. In the real world you need to look at what locations are available under the chosen conditions of having a government that supports the haven and its privacy. Secondly it is a question who owns the data connections and to what degree would these companies cave in towards claims from governments not to connect the haven.

Also the encryption is a challenge. They key success factor on encryption nowadays is the ease of use by the user. If the encryption adds additional complexity to our day to day tasks in the digital world than a huge distribution is unlikely. The whole concept would remain something for very few with special needs for protection of their data.

Implementation Issues

Is there such a country in the world which would be self-sufficient enough to withstand pressure from outside? Is there a country stable enough to ensure that the guarantee for privacy is not revoked with the next change in leadership (by whatever means)? Is there a country geographically located in a way that it is outside of harm’s way of the nature, close to existing network connection or already connected?

Is there such a country? Pick a map and look for yourself. It probably would be a small one so better have your magnifying glass close by.

Would the U.S.A. or other countries tolerate such a place and concept? Neal Stephenson predicts that the world would cut the haven connections to the internet at all costs. I could well imagine legal and illegal actions to keep the haven unstable and disconnected. The current strategy to privacy seems to be less privacy means more security and a safe data haven would contradict that.

On the currency part of the motive I am convinced that it would be out of the frying pan and into the fire to move from very few currencies controlled by governments to one currency controlled either by a company or a single state.

The enterprise customer view

Apart from the general idea I do believe the data haven would not change much for legal enterprises. They operate in countries under local law. They need to abide to these laws and in effect that forces them to open up data sources outside of the country even today. The Patriot Act is the best example for that.

Conclusion

The idea is great and given the fact that the book itself was published in 1999 it foresaw many of today’s challenges. I have been thinking about the idea of the safe data haven for a while and will keep on munching this over. It certainly would be a huge business opportunity but would any individual be able to accept the moral consequences? Also I am not convinced that from a geopolitical point of view we would want a currency living outside of the control systems. How difficult it is even within these control systems to prevent major crises we do see currently in Europe and the U.S.A.

 

 

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