In the Shadow of that Hideous Strength: The UN’s Proposed Alliance with Big Data to Know Where You are and What You’re Doing

By Joshua P. Nuckols
August 1, 2013

The age of crony capitalism, married to scientific research, with the sword of the state blazing the way. Enter That Hideous Strength, and C.S. Lewis’s scathing, yet prophetic portrayal of a science unhinged from objective truth, and sold-out in the pursuit of power.

Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result . . . Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God” (That Hideous Strength, p. 203).

Lewis’s not-so science fiction work haunted me this last April, when I served as an NGO Representative to the UN’s Commission on Population and Development. The Theme for 2016 was “enhancing the demographic evidence base.” In other words, the commission was concerned about data. Accurate data. Data you can sink your teeth into, and track population movements, contraceptive usage, and a country’s overall amount of harmful alcohol consumption. The UN wants to know everything about everybody. They seek a level of omniscience unprecedented in world history, all as a crucial part of their grandiose, audacious, Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

But convincing someone to sell their freedom, requires big promises. How about SDG goal #1 “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” for a starter?  

The UN’s Commission on Population and Development is one of ten commissions in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), ranging anywhere from the Forum on Forests (UNFF) to the Status of Women (UNCSW). Through starched, dry, and benignly titled commissions, the UN elite seeks to control the economic and social development of the world.

The fundamental philosophy undergirding ECOSOC is collectivism, relying heavily upon top-down, central planning, by self-interested bureaucrats (each with a pet issue to peddle). But the stubborn thorn of all central planning has always been limited knowledge. The UN is now making a concerted effort to overcome that hurdle by making use of Big Data. As if to only make matters worse, the economic elite and the cosmopolitan bureaucrats finally may have enough information to make sub-par, sovereignty ceding, harmful decisions; and thereby forever proving Hayek right:  

[Central] planning owes its present strength largely to the fact that, while planning is in the main still an ambition, it unites almost all the single-minded idealists, all the men and women who have devoted their lives to a single task. The hopes they place in planning, however, are the result not of a comprehensive view of society but rather of a very limited view and often the results of a great exaggeration of the importance of the ends they place foremost . . .  it would make the very men who are most anxious to plan society the most dangerous if they are allowed to do so -- and the most intolerant of the planning of others. (The Road to Serfdom, p. 55).


According to a 2015 report, Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, boasted that “the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] helped to lift more than one billion people out of extreme poverty.” The claim failed to reference probably the most important factors in the reduction of global poverty: the growth and privatization of both China and India over the last several decades. As an economist commented, “three-quarters of the gains made in reducing extreme poverty are attributable to economic growth in China and India, not to any particular effort by the United Nations.”

But with such glaring success, the UN is confident that their Sustainable Development Goals will face little opposition. And they’re probably right. A poverty-free future sounds too good to pass up (or be true).

Along with goals of ending poverty and ending hunger, the SDG’s seek to “ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights,” which many countries interpret as abortion on demand -- a sustained effort, especially by developed countries, to control and limit world population. Not to forget combatting climate change, increasing the use of renewable energy, and the picturesque Goal 16:  “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” It sounds so nice -- or does it?

An integral component for the UN’s SDG aspirations, are their ability to measure progress. And this requires data. Massive amounts of it. This includes traditional sources, such as censuses, surveys, civil registration, but also Big Data.

A UN report, listed current projects to exploit Big Data, and gather information. Including, mobile positioning data for “tourism” tracking, mobile phone data for commuting patterns, tweet analysis, and smart meters for analyzing the structure and size of households, among countless others.

ECOSOC released its 2015, Report of the Global Working Group on Big Data for Official Statistics. “The potential of big data sources resides in the timely — and sometimes real-time — availability of large amounts of data, which are usually generated at minimal cost.” Listing: “[GPS] devices, automated teller machines, scanning devices, sensors, mobile phones, satellites and social media.” It then voiced its disappointment that much of the data is currently inaccessible to the global statistical community:

While most respondents recognize the challenges associated with information technology, skills, legislation and methodology, the biggest challenge for most big data projects is the limited or restricted access to potential data sets. Since big data are, to a large extent, owned by the private sector (e.g., online companies, mobile phone operators and banks), achieving close collaboration with the private sector becomes highly important.

The report then detailed a plan of action:

Many of these players are global companies; hence, the global statistical community could use their collective bargaining power to obtain access to these data sets.

What would these companies receive in exchange for release of their data? Maybe nothing. Maybe the concerted pressure applied by the “global statistical community” would be enough? My guess is that it is, and probably always has been enough.   

Efforts to collaborate and share data across state boundaries will ensue. Hence, the concept of “partnerships.” Strong countries will bully smaller countries into releasing their data, and the powerful will only release what is in their own interest. So the NSA may keep much of its data confidential, and release only favorable portions of it to the global community. But the UN report made clear that most of the data it seeks is in the private sector. State sovereignty does little to shield the dissemination of privately owned and carried data. Partnerships between Google, Facebook, Mobile-Phone carriers, and the UN are the desired outcome. With the end result being a global data bank.


Walking through the basement of the UN building in NYC, I felt the ignoble presence of all 39 stories press down upon me. What was up there? Most of it was off limits for outsiders. It couldn’t be the individual delegations -- their offices were at their own embassies. Was it all -- bureaucracy? This place was a tower of human capital. An intense wealth of research, knowledge, and inevitably-- power. A shadow government: a bureaucracy built beneath the shadow of that hideous strength -- a testament to man’s futile attempts to assert, and proclaim its own aspirations to godhood.

But why had I never heard of the UN’s, not-so secretive efforts to harness Big Data for its own purposes before? Again, Lewis provided insight:

Why you fool, it's the educated reader who CAN be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything. (That Hideous Strength, 97-98).

Joshua P. Nuckols was a 2016 Civil Liberties Scholar with The Rutherford Institute. He attends the University of St. Thomas Law School in Minneapolis, MN.