‘Bumblehive’ and ‘Sealand’: Big Data Infrastructures

(Note: image taken from a site spoofing/critiquing the Utah data center: http://nsa.gov1.info/utah-data-center/)

On August 21, 2013, Mother Jones published the headline, “The World’s Most Notorious Micronation Has the Secret to Protecting Your Data From the NSA,” reviving Sealand as the techno-utopic data haven it once promised to be. Aa a self-contained data fortress located on a defunct anti-aircraft platform in the waters of the cold North Sea, Sealand’s servers, according to HavenCo Ltd.’s posturing, has been of “an offshore, fat-pipe data haven that answers to nobody”. For more than a decade, Sealand’s quasi-independent server farm failed time and again as an endeavour to push the bounds of the legal and technologically possible within the aim of providing an ‘off-government’ data storehouse. Today, it is revived in the face of the NSA’s (National Security Agency) surveillance initiatives, and the threat to privacy that the Utah Data Center (i.e. Bumblehive) monumentalizes (for more, see coverage in Forbes, The GuardianNPR, Scientific American, and in an interview with NSA analyst William Binney in the Daily Caller). In 2013, Sealand’s HavenCo ‘2.0’ poses a necessary challenge to “the edges of our geopolitical economy” (Ito, quoted here), and to the concept of open communication offered through different material and infrastructural constitutions.

While said to be notorious for being a micronation doubling as a data haven, Sealand is still mostly unknown to the general population and remains obscure as a site of inquiry for scholars. The majority of the documentation about Sealand emerges out of citizenship paraphernalia (passports and t-shirts), alongside streams of journalistic and legal proceedings, that together inadvertently serve as records of its floundering attempts at branding itself, and toward juridical independence (Grimmelmann 2012; 2012b).

However, the concept of data protection put forward by the notion of a data haven is becoming increasingly important in relation to the current NSA-related debacles, and speaks to the materiality of what contains our data – how it is hosted and housed – and the ensuing politics of these infrastructures. How does location become the frame for exploring the political potentials of the space, place and the environment? What does it mean that we are disconnected and denied access to the servers and sites that together generate and preserve (our) “big data”? What does this disconnect say about the way that the interface (through which we engage and willingly offer our data) veils consent as to how big data is then potentially repurposed? How are notions of privacy and transparency discursively packaged into ideals of “protection” through media representations, of both Sealand, as data haven, and the heavily guarded data center, Bumblehive? How do these guarded structures come to replace or instate metaphors of access; island as the lawless counterpart to a centralized repository? And conversely, how might the idea of a local/ized internet be instated to control data based on, or instead of, national internet regulations?

These queries ask that Bumblehive be situated in relation to Sealand, and also within the recent historical context that surrounds big data, since former CIA employee and NSA contractor (now fugitive) Edward Snowden released classified documents on the matter to the press. Since Snowden, questions of data ownership and surveillance demand, among other things, a deeper scholarly engagement about the ways in which Sealand has been discursively constructed as an alternative, and reconfigured in the media as a response, to Bumblehive. As a short intervention, I provide this think piece as an opportunity (if not a call for action), for media and communication studies scholars to consider the ways in which the internet’s materialities speak volumes about our culture and how it is collected, documented, represented and repurposed. It also becomes an opportunity to tell a fascinating story about how media representation unravels and recovers from its own investment in the web, bridging the weightiness of legal and scholarly interventions with the humour of the blogosphere and the streams of social media that constantly refresh the conversation. A beginning of sorts, this moment of high speculation requires more than documentation, it begets critical scholarly reflection and attention as the best means to engage with the discourse of data protection in relation to the antithetical political structures that stake claims over this power. My intent is therefore to draw urgent attention to the ways in which discourses of materialities of data infrastructures (Chun 2013; Cubbitt, Hassan, and Volkmer, 2011; Maxwell & Miller 2012; Parikka 2011; Gabrys 2011), along with theories of media ecologies (Parikka 2013), inform (and limit) the grid of possibilities for agency and activism in light of inevitable big data aggregation in our current networked culture and economy.

In sum, Sealand offers more of a metaphorical reconfiguration about the fears we have (or should have) regarding our data-how it circulates and where it ends up. Our complicity in feeding into the networks that map and surveil us cannot be understated, and yet the timeliness of these revelations seems uncanny; the internet is a technology still too young to be regulated and yet mature enough to have amassed data on the majority of its users on a global scale. The repercussions of Snowden’s leaks will be important. Their impact is already made visible by the shift in discourse to localize the internet, as demonstrated through the Euro Cloud as well as Brazil’s proposal to build local internet data centers. These plans, among others, reinforce the Sealand metaphor while arguably giving governments greater control (rather than opting for lawlessness) over internet regulation and data storage in ‘the cloud.’ These plans also suggest that much of the future of the internet will be structured around the concept of data privacy, of which both Bumblehive and Sealand foreshadow extreme versions of the possible outcomes.