Hannah Bradshaw | Pacific Fellow
Originally coined by The Economist in 2017, the phrase ‘data is the new oil’ has generated a lot of discussion in the public sphere and is becoming an increasingly common refrain. The majority of the domestic discussion centres on the negative elements of data’s growing value, a notion which is unsurprising in Australia considering the recent Medibank and Optus data breaches. However, it is important to acknowledge that data’s growing value is a polarising topic across the globe – giving birth to hacktivism, which has the ability to spark social change but, as academics and politicians alike argue, at what cost?
The complexities of hacktivism in action can be observed presently in Indonesia, with the Bjorka case. The hacker(s), who use the pseudonym ‘Bjorka’ on Twitter and darknet websites, first became known at the beginning of September 2022 following a massive data leak. Approximately 1.3 billion Indonesian citizen’s SIM card registration details were stolen and allegedly sold on dark sites.
If the data hacks ended here, the story likely would’ve stopped gaining traction in both the domestic and international spheres. However, it is Bjorka’s political agenda which has caused the story to stay in the headlines, much to the chagrin of increasingly frustrated Indonesian politicians. Bjorka explained their motive on their now suspended Twitter account, stating: ‘I just wanted to point out how easy it is for me to get into various doors due to a terrible data protection policy. Primarily if it is managed by the government’.
This critique of Indonesian data protection laws and capability is well-founded. Prior to 2022, Indonesia did not have a comprehensive Data Protection Act. Instead, the data of citizens is protected under the Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia 1945 ('the Constitution'). However, the lack of a comprehensive act means that many areas of data protection aren’t appropriately addressed or are significantly outdated. Consequently, many citizens joke that Indonesia is an ‘open-source country’.
This illustrates why many Indonesians are siding with a hacker that is clearly making a political statement. When the Director General of Informatics Application at the Ministry of Communication and Information, Semuel Abrijani Pangerapan, haplessly pleaded with the hackers to ‘If [they] can, don’t attack’, Bjorka swiftly replied, ‘Don’t be an idiot’.
Some observers question whether the embarrassment the Indonesian Government has faced at the hands of Bjorka accelerated the ratification of the new Personal Data Protection (PDP) Law in October 2022. After the two-year transitional period, the law will provide Indonesia with a future-orientated regulatory framework while simultaneously sparking reform in data governance across both the public and private sectors.
As acknowledged by Gatria Priyandita, an analyst at International Cyber Policy Centre, ‘this isn’t the first major data breach in Indonesian history and it is very unlikely to be the last. Ultimately, the government must lead by example by ensuring that it is capable of protecting the data of everyday Indonesians by improving its own cybersecurity infrastructure’. This further serves to underscore Bjorka’s ‘Robin Hood-esque’ status in the eyes of the Indonesian public, acting as a representative of the people and holding the government to account.
As the world continues to transition into the 21st century and beyond, the international political arena is confronted with a new array of challenges, threats, and opportunities. The classification of contemporary issues into these categories has become a new obsession for academics, climate change is a ‘threat’ and COVID-19 posed a ‘challenge’. However, many emerging issues are not easily definable, and do not easily fit into the categories of challenge, threat or opportunity.
As the phrase, ‘data is the new oil’, demonstrates, by solely categorising issues as an ‘opportunity’ or ‘threat’, much of the context and complexity is missed. Hacktivism is one such issue. It is not only a popular means of contemporary activism, but a polarising instrument of national power that challenges the discourses of both international law and international relations. Highlighting that while the positive or negative connotations of the phrase remain up for debate, the value of data on the 21st century global stage remains undisputed.
Hannah Bradshaw is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.