Otherwise Salon: Graphs and Sovereignty

25 Nov 2019 11:35h - 13:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

Mr Christoph Engemann (Member of the Otherwise Network and a postdoc at Bauhaus University Weimar) presented on the topic of graphs and sovereignty, a topic that spans a variety of issues including: data governance, privacy and data protection, cyber conflict, public-private partnerships, and federal contracts.

This is an emerging issue and its recent growth is highlighted by an increase in recent publications, such as Stephane Couture and Sophie Toupin’s 2019 article, ‘What does the notion of ‘sovereignty’ mean when referring to the digital?’ or the German Christian Democratic Union Party’s publication of a paper on data sovereignty in November 2019. Engemann stressed that his presentation was focused on analysing some emerging work about the topic of graphs and sovereignty, and encouraged participants to ask more questions and push the boundaries of current research.

As digital technology grows in scope and power, the concept of sovereignty is changing among academics when discussing issues related to data, technology, and digitisation. This change is a continuation of shifts in the definition of sovereignty within international relations and public policy.

Engemann discussed how sovereignty became an issue inherent in data governance with the rise of an angst-lust debate. This debate is characterised by the tension between the fear of a dystopian model of the Internet and information governance (for example, the Chinese social system) and a hope in the allocative power that information can bring to policy-makers. It is the aggregates of people, nodes, and data, however, that Engemann stresses are important to pay attention to, rather than focusing on individuals and individual data points.

What are graphs? In the case of graphs and sovereignty, Engemann is referring to a specific type of graph, or the visual depotentiation using computed models to show the bridges and edges of realities and accompanying power structures. Emerging from the field of graph theory, the concept of a ‘consumer web’ appeared in a 2012 report by Gartner Research, ‘The Competitive Dynamics of the Consumer Web: Five graphics deliver a sustainable advantage’. Using the five most powerful graphs: the social graph, the intent graph, the consumption graph, the interest graph, and the mobile graph, this report illuminates the power that big data graphs have in building and in marketing business models (for example, LinkedIn).

Is is not only tech companies, however, that capitalise on these graphs. Engemann stressed that governments have also used these graphs for much longer, possibly in 1998 or 1999, in order to make what William Binney, of the National Security Agency, called, a ‘social network of the world’ during a leaked 2014 conversation from the Wikileak of the Bundestag in 2015. Engemann found not only the development and use of graphs by governments as far back as 1998 or 1999 interesting, but also the lack of questions for Binney during the discussion about the motivations behind, or the values ascribed to, these graphs.

Engemann went on to state that these graphs continue to be utilised not only to locate potential threats to the sovereignty of a nation-state, but also to bolster military tactics that have been used since the 1960s and 1970s by the US military. He pointed out a US military publication from 2006 of a Counter Insurgency Field Manual that adds new graphing capabilities that use graph density to determine how insurgents are targeted and addressed. This method of ‘shaping operations’ and the rise of ‘shaping doctrines’ is highlighted in Fred Kaplan’s book ‘The Insurgents’ as well as in the 2012 article by Devon Callahan et al., ‘Shaping Operations to Attack Robust Terror Networks’.

With the rise of new graphing technologies and companies alongside changing definitions of sovereignty, Engemann stresses that ‘social-graphs are [now] economic and geostrategic assets … geopolitics are graph politics’. These graph politics, however, require movements in order to update, forcing companies to create ‘persona networks’ to either develop new methods of detecting ‘dark networks’ (for example, Palantir Gotham) or to generate traffic using sharpening models (for example, memes or ‘fake news’).

For Engemann, the most important question to ask is ‘What do we do with all this?’ Pointing to the concept of Graphenahmen-Graph appropriations, Engemann sees new technology driving new problems of ortung and ormung (localisation and order). Currently, we have means of localisation, but issues related to sovereignty and order require serious thought from all stakeholders.

Concluding his presentation, Engemann calls for the consideration of what is inside and outside the graphs, and recognises the ‘conflicting desire between prohibition and enabling the movement of data, goods, and people’ as a central part of sovereignty.

By Anna Cecile Loup