UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Dr Saheli Datta Burton - Research Fellow in Geopolitics of Industrial Internet of Things Standards

Dr Saheli Datta Burton is a Research Fellow in Geopolitics of Industrial Internet of Things Standards (GISt) at the UK EPSRC funded PETRAS National Centre for Excellence.

Can you briefly describe what your research project is about?

GISt is about understanding the extent to which political and economic interest is embedded in the fora, processes and communities of practice that set the security norms and standards through which Internet governance is enacted. Discussions and debates in forums like the UN International Telecommunication Union, European Union Agency for Cybersecurity, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Internet Engineering Task Force have become important sites for the global governance of the Internet of Things (IoT) but remain largely decoupled from cyber security discussions within the international policy community. Initially regarded as the domain of the technical community, standards are increasingly understood as a powerful mechanism through which IoT governance is implemented. At the same time, the governance and security of IoT infrastructure and implementation is regarded by states as linked to national security, national interest and state power. Consequently, understanding how different states are engaging with standards negotiations, which states are taking newly assertive roles, and which states are forming powerful alliances in standards forums is critical to understanding how technology and geopolitics intersect.

Drawing on a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods, GISt provides a unique perspective of the untidy, contingent and complex dynamics of the geopolitical and local interests embedded in the ecosystem of security standards in the specific domain of Industrial IoT. It is informed by theories and concepts from Science Technology and Innovation Studies, International Political Economy and International Relations. In particular, the project focuses on understanding the dynamics of state power underpinning interstate cooperation and competition that is essential for the UK, and the research team works closely with the UK standards negotiation teams to take this forward.

How is it different from other research projects on the topic?

GIST's unique focus on 'Industrial' IoT (IIoT) sets it apart from the 'consumer' IOT focus of existing scholarship. Industrial IoT, often referred to as Industry 4.0, combines machine-to-machine communications with big-data analytics to drive industrial efficiency across sectors including critical infrastructure systems like electricity, transportation, telecommunications, finance and healthcare. This raises substantive local and cross-border security concerns given IIOT's increased susceptibility to the vulnerabilities that emerge in IoT more generally. Understanding how these concerns intersect with the efficiency rationale (centred on (inter)national competitiveness) further extends GISt's unique remit to the conceptualisation of IR in STIS - which is a research space that remains curiously understudied and limited to the technical community.

What do you find exciting about this project?

Unlike Kevin Reynolds' multimillion-dollar flick of dubious box-office fame Waterworld, our increasingly online world is no futuristic imaginary but a reality and here to stay. As the datafication and cyber-fication of anything and everything swamps and changes our world at a pace unprecedented in human history, many wonder how 'brave' tomorrow's world might be? The answer, as many of us suspect, depends largely on how the power relationships and structural hierarchies of today shape (and are shaped by) the cyber norms and standards through which future cyber-societies will be realised. While shared imperatives for securing global goods (such as cyber security) provide compelling motivation for interstate cooperation, the extent of cooperation is often decided by compromises (or its lack) among multiple competing interests. The result is spaces of cyber norm contestation that are as varied as they are diverse.

How should cyber sovereignty be understood and should it matter for (I)IOT standards? Is sovereignty a byword for protectionism? Or are sovereignty clauses a protective tool against norm capture by private for-profit interests in the guise of multistakeholderism? Is self-regulation enough or even desired? Does multistakeholder participation in global fora perpetuate structural hierarchies, and does it marginalise the resource-poor? On the technical side: to what extent do technical fixes marginalise the non-technical and the frugal, and what are its implications? Why do some technical issues such as 'privacy' become visible at the expense of others - what is obscured, why and to what end? The opportunity to explore how knowledge is produced, mobilised and shared (in the specific case of IIOT) to answer these and other questions as they engage with the politics, economics and processes of norm contestation and formation is a unique one. Am I excited to be on board - absolutely!

What are you working on now to prepare for the next stage of the project?

My current work focuses on translating the broad conceptual framing of the project into methodological lenses and themes around which data collection will be organised. Under consideration are the merits of further refining methodological lenses to specific domains within IIOT such as emerging data-driven health and medicine. Identification and engagement with stakeholders for various discreet aspects of the project - from analytical and theory development to dissemination - are also underway. Most importantly, the team is committed to delivering its aforementioned aims and remains hard at work accommodating the project's imperatives with the evolving realities of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.