Advent of the Age of Information as a consequence of the IT revolution at the beginning of the nineties, transformed the world since it laid down new prerequisites for success that applied to any field, reinterpreted the concept of leadership and created ‘knowledge economy’.
When Mukesh Ambani Chairman of Reliance Industries Limited – India’s largest corporate entity – enunciated at a recent media conclave that ‘data is the new oil’ he was validating the new reality that today individuals and enterprises have to be well informed if they wanted to achieve maximisation of productivity. He certainly knows all about oil and what he said was a wake up call for everybody to realise that having access to data, ability to process information and the will to make Intelligence-based decisions, was the new combination for achieving corporate success and gaining competitive edge. It is no surprise that Mukesh Ambani’s JIO Infocomm Ltd is his new ‘big ticket’ dream matching his oil story. India’s richest man has an intuitive grasp of Indian and global market and an insight into how businesses would shape in the age of information. All of this makes it appropriate that importance of information is examined in all its dimensions.
Information is classically defined as ‘an intelligible fact or data that tells you what you did not already know’. Getting hold of the relevant data and reading into it the pathway of making the right decision – preferably ahead of others – is the key. Being smart today requires establishing the right interplay of technology and data for running a system, managing an industrial enterprise or even reaching the right strategic decisions at the national level. Being ‘smart’ simply means enhancing the outcome per unit of resource investment of money, manpower and time. It is the new yardstick of efficiency. The Age of Information demands a new level of logical thinking based on knowledge and a new approach to the management of risk.
What is the meaning of being well-informed? It implies three things that you have the right information at the right time and also at the right price for you may have to spend on accessing that information; that you have the information that makes a difference between a decision and a guess; and that you are continually updated since being well-informed is not a one time event. Also, knowledge comes in integral packages and therefore there is a certain importance of ’completeness’ of information that you have.
A successful school teacher today has to have knowledge of child psychology and parental stress as well. The Age of Information counts on those who are information- savvy. There are some well-defined traits of information- savvy people. They tend to read a lot and like to categorise information in the subjects of their liking. They have insatiable curiosity arising out of a spirit of inquiry but they always prefer authoritative opinion to gossip. They have an analytical mind and the ability to distinguish essentials from non-essentials.
They have a logical progression of thought that enables them to seek the what, why and where of an information issue. And finally, they have a healthy interest in human psychology and behaviour since they know that all business is human activity.
Today the customer seeks data that helped in informed decision making, wants everything on the mobile- live TV to banking and demands saving on time and energy. Businesses and industries have to run on IP systems that have built-in data analytics and security. Governance is increasingly based on computerisation and collation of data on citizens and yet it has to measure up to the constitutional responsibility of preserving the right to privacy. Data is the new universal resource available for generating products and services, acquiring competitive intelligence and improving the vision for the future. When Albert Einstein famously said that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’ he was pointing not only to the importance of data but also to the capacity of the human brain to use it for getting a peep into what lies ahead. Information available out there is endless-in the ‘cloud’ literally and the challenge is how quickly it can be accessed, put together and made to yield new products and applications.
The world of data, cyber space is making life more and more exciting for the individual but it is also inevitably producing for nations some new dimensions of war and peace. Cyber warfare has fast emerged as a new kind of invisible combat that could be in play even in peace times with the adversary having the advantage of making an undetected ‘first strike’. In view of the centrality of cyber space for national security, countries are setting up cyber commands and formulating national cyber strategies to deal with the emerging dangers in cyber space. The threats materialise by way of denial of the use of cyber space to the opponent, confusing the decision-making loops of the other side and destruction of critical information infrastructure including military commands and control networks in wars. A subtext of the strategy is to use the cyber power to deter the opponent from pursuing a particular course of action, by unleashing psychological campaigns. Some special characteristics of cyber warfare add to the challenge of dealing with it. First, since much of the cyber space is owned and operated by private sector, controlling the cyber space works best when there is complete public private partnership.
India’s national cyber policy emphasises this. Second, attribution remains a problem and often it becomes extremely difficult to know the source of attack particularly if the adversary used proxies.
Deterrence can work only against the known enemies. Finally, early warnings unlike in physical world are not possible in cyber space and one can at best know about the hit when the system is under attack. In fact in cyber space offence is significantly easier than defence.
Data is an asset but its manipulation by the malcontents is becoming a growing menace for honest business and a threat to international order itself. The role of data analytics firms like Cambridge Analytica in using stolen data to construct manipulated news and views on social media to influence the outcome of a democratic election, has been uncovered in a big way.
Data analytics has been used to build psychological profiles of small voter groups to micro-manage an election on behalf of a client. There is a danger of such activities being directed at changing the geo-politics of a region or even for destabilising a nation much in the manner advocacy groups and pro-Left forums did during the days of cold war. In short while data mining is the new resource for wealth creation, the world can do with a firm set of global norms to prevent misuse of data for creating conflicts at the national and international levels.
(The writer is a former director of Intelligence Bureau)