Security implications of digitalization: The dangers of data colonialism and the way towards sustainable and sovereign management of environmental data

Stürmer, Matthias; Nussbaumer, Jasmin; Stöckli, Pascal (2021). Security implications of digitalization: The dangers of data colonialism and the way towards sustainable and sovereign management of environmental data Bern: Universität Bern 10.13140/RG.2.2.24791.80807

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Digitalization opens up new opportunities in the collection, analysis, and presentation of data which can contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, the access to and control of environmental and geospatial data is fundamental to identify and understand global issues and trends. Also immediate crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the importance of accurate health data such as infection statistics and the relevance of digital tools like video conferencing platforms. However, today much of the data is collected and processed by private actors. Thus, governments and researchers depend on data platforms and proprietary systems of big tech companies such as Google or Microsoft. The market capitalization of the seven largest US and Chinese big tech companies has grown to 8.7tn USD in recent years, about twice the size of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP). Therefore, their market power is enormous, allowing them to dictate many rules of the digital space and even interfere with legislations.
Based on a literature review and nine expert interviews this study presents a framework that identifies the risks and consequences along the workflow of collecting, processing, storing, using of data. It also includes solutions that governmental and multilateral actors can strive for to alleviate the risks. Fundamental to this framework is the novel concept of “data colonialism” which describes today’s trend of private companies appropriating the digital sphere. Historically, colonial nations used to grab indigenous land and exploit the cheap labor of slave workers. In a similar way, today’s big tech corporations use cheap data of their users to produce valuable services and thus create enormous market power.
The major dilemma is that many of the technically sophisticated services offered by big tech companies are very cheap or even seemingly free. Through their huge hyperscale data centers and with their highly skilled workforce, they are able to provide high-end information communication technology (ICT) infrastructure as well as advanced user-friendly computing services at a very low or no price. However, not only the big tech corporations, also smaller but focused software vendors create dependence of governmental actors and thus increase the growing asymmetry of knowledge and digital skills between the private and the public sector.
The interviews in this report show that Western countries and also developing countries today depend heavily on digital products and services from large and medium-sized IT enterprises, mostly located in the US and China. The powerful position of such companies leads to a weak negotiating position of public actors and thus often to an uncritical use of convenient digital services without further reflection on the long-term consequences. The situation resembles a seemingly relaxed existence inside a gilded cage controlled by powerful tech corporations.
This report summarizes historical as well as current academic and practitioner-oriented literature regarding the problem of data colonialism and the loss of digital sovereignty. The analysis of nine expert interviews from Swiss government, UN organizations, NGOs and academics draws a comprehensive picture of key issues facing society in the digital space today and in future. Besides elaborating the problem of IT provider dependence and illustrating current cases of data colonialism, this report also highlights solutions regarding data sovereignty and draws a path towards digital sustainability of the future virtual space.
Several examples in the interviews show how governmental actors and academics are able to regain control of their data and infrastructure when they invest into government controlled data analytics platforms, and build up common standards, data repositories, software and computing sites. One key element is supporting and relying on collaborative digital platforms such as the openly licensed, crowd-sourced global geographical information data community OpenStreetMap or the governmental and scientific driven environmental monitoring infrastructure Swiss Data Cube.
Therefore, the authors of this report recommend that professional IT users like governmental bodies and researchers become aware of the long-term problems of relying on data analytics, software development and IT infrastructure provided by private corporations. Consequently, the solutions include recommendations such as using, investing into and releasing open source software and publicly owned IT infrastructure. Also, governments should increase their employer appeal to attract young data science and software developer talent.

Item Type:

Report (Report)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Computer Science (INF)

UniBE Contributor:

Stürmer, Matthias Emmanuel, Nussbaumer, Jasmin Myriam


000 Computer science, knowledge & systems


Universität Bern


[UNSPECIFIED] Federal Department of Foreign Affairs FDFA




Matthias Emmanuel Stürmer

Date Deposited:

19 Jul 2021 11:26

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:51

Publisher DOI:


ArXiv ID:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

data colonialism, data sovereignty, digital sustainability




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