Tech for Whom?

Charley Johnson has a good line of questions and critique for any organization or group which is promoting a ‘technology for good’ program. The crux is that any and all techno-utopian proposals suggest a means of technology to solve a problem as defined by the party making the proposal. Put another way, these kinds of solutions do not tend to solve real underlying problems but, instead, solve the ‘problems’ for which hucksters have build a pre-designed a ‘solution’.

This line of analysis isn’t new, per se, and follows in a long line of equity, social justice, feminism, and critical theory writers. Still, Johnson does a good job in extracting key issues with techno-utopianism. Key, is that any of these solutions tend to present a ‘tech for good’ mindset that:

… frames the problem in such a way that launders the interests, expertise, and beliefs of technologists…‘For good’ is problematic because it’s self-justifying. How can I question or critique the technology if it’s ‘for good’? But more importantly, nine times out of ten ‘for good’ leads to the definition of a problem that requires a technology solution.

One of the things that we are seeing more commonly is the use of data, in and of itself, as something that can be used for good: data for good initiatives are cast as being critical to solving climate change, making driving safer, or automating away the messier parties of our lives. Some of these arguments are almost certainly even right! However, the proposed solutions tend to rely on collecting, using, or disclosing data—derived from individuals’ and communities’ activities—without obtaining their informed, meaningful, and ongoing consent. ‘Data for good’ depends, first and often foremost, on removing the agency to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a given ‘solution’.

In the Canadian context efforts to enable ‘good’ uses of data have emerged through successively introduced pieces of commercial privacy legislation. The legislation would permit the disclosure of de-identified personal information for “socially beneficial purposes.” Information could be disclosed to government, universities, public libraries, health care institutions, organizations mandated by the government to carry out a socially beneficial purpose, and other prescribed entities. Those organizations could use the data for a purpose related to health, the provision or improvement of public amenities or infrastructure, the protection of the environment or any other prescribed purpose.

Put slightly differently, whereas Johnson’s analysis is towards a broad concept of ‘data for good’ in tandem with elucidating examples, the Canadian context threatens to see broad-based techno-utopian uses of data enabled at the legislative level. The legislation includes the ability to expand whom can receive de-identified data and the range of socially beneficial uses, with new parties and uses being defined by regulation. While there are a number of problems with these kinds of approaches—which include the explicit removal of consent of individuals and communities to having their data used in ways they may actively disapprove of—at their core the problems are associated with power: the power of some actors to unilaterally make non-democratic decisions that will affect other persons or communities.

This capacity to invisibly express power over others is the crux of most utopian fantasies. In such fantasies, power relationships are resolved in the absence of making them explicit and, in the process, an imaginary is created wherein social ills are fixed as a result of power having been hidden away. Decision making in a utopia is smooth and efficient, and the power asymmetries which enable such situations is either hidden away or just not substantively discussed.

Johnson’s article concludes with a series of questions that act to re-surface issues of power vis-a-vis explicitly raising questions of agency and the origin and nature of the envisioned problem(s) and solution(s):

Does the tool increase the self-determination and agency of the poor?

Would the tool be tolerated if it was targeted at non-poor people?

What problem does the tool purport to solve and who defined that problem?

How does the way they frame the problem shape our understanding of it?

What might the one framing the problem gain from solving it?

We can look to these questions as, at their core, raising issues of power—who is involved in determining how agency is expressed, who has decision-making capabilities in defining problems and solutions—and, through them, issues of inclusion and equity. Implicit through his writing, at least to my eye, is that these decisions cannot be assigned to individuals but to individuals and their communities.

One of the great challenges for modern democratic rule making is that we must transition from imagining political actors as rational, atomic, subjects to ones that are seen as embedded in their community. Individuals are formed by their communities, and vice versa, simultaneously. This means that we need to move away from traditional liberal or communitarian tropes to recognize the phenomenology of living in society, alone and together simultaneously, while also recognizing and valuing the tilting power and influence of ‘non-rational’ aspects of life that give life much of its meaning and substance. These elements of life are most commonly those demonized or denigrated by techno-utopians on the basis that technology is ‘rational’ and is juxtaposed against the ‘irrationality’ of how humans actually live and operate in the world.

Broad and in conclusion, then, techno-utopianism is functionally an issue of power and domination. We see ‘tech bros’ and traditional power brokers alike advancing solutions to their perceived problems, and this approach may be further reified should legislation be passed to embed this conceptual framework more deeply into democratic nation-states. What is under-appreciated is that while such legislative efforts may make certain techno-utopian activities lawful the subsequent actions will not, as a result, necessarily be regarded as legitimate by those affected by the lawful ‘socially beneficial’ uses of de-identified personal data.

The result? At best, ambivalence that reflects the population’s existing alienation from democratic structures of government. More likely, however, is that lawful but illegitimate expressions of ‘socially beneficial’ uses of data will further delegitimize the actions and capabilities of the states, with the effect of further weakening the perceived inclusivity of our democratic traditions.

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Which States Most Require ‘Democratic Support’?

Roland Paris and Jennifer Walsh have an excellent, and thought-provoking, column in the Globe and Mail where they argue that Western democracies need to adopt a ‘democratic support’ agenda. Such an agenda has multiple points comprising:

  1. States getting their own democratic houses in order;
  2. States defending themselves and other democracies against authoritarian states’ attempts to disrupt democracies or coerce residents of democracies;
  3. States assisting other democracies which are at risk of slipping toward authoritarianism.

In principle, each of these points make sense and can interoperate with one another. The vision is not to inject democracy into states but, instead, to protect existing systems and demonstrate their utility as a way of weaning nations towards adopting and establishing democratic institutions. The authors also assert that countries like Canada should learn from non-Western democracies, such as Korea or Taiwan, to appreciate how they have maintained their institutions in the face of the pandemic as a way to showcase how ‘peer nations’ also implement democratic norms and principles.

While I agree with the positions the authors suggest, far towards the end of the article they delicately slip in what is the biggest challenge to any such agenda. Namely, they write:

Time is short for Canada to articulate its vision for democracy support. The countdown to the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already under way, and no one can predict its outcome. Meanwhile, two of Canada’s closest democratic partners in Europe, Germany and France, may soon turn inward, preoccupied by pivotal national elections that will feature their own brands of populist politics.1

In warning that the United States may be an unreliable promoter of democracy (and, by extension, human rights and international rules and order which have backstopped Western-dominated world governance for the past 50 years) the authors reveal the real threat. What does it mean when the United States is regarded as likely to become more deeply mired in internecine ideological conflicts that absorbs its own attention, limits its productive global engagements, and is used by competitor and authoritarian nations to warn of the consequences of “American-style” democracy?

I raise these questions because if the authors’ concerns are fair (and I think they are) then any democracy support agenda may need to proceed with the presumption that the USA may be a wavering or episodic partner in associated activities. To some extent, assuming this position would speak more broadly to a recognition that the great power has significantly fallen. To even take this as possible–to the extent that contingency planning is needed to address potential episodic American commitment to the agenda of buttressing democracies–should make clear that the American wavering is the key issue: in a world where the USA is regarded as unreliable, what does this mean for other democracies and how they support fellow democratic states? Do countries, such as Canada and others with high rule-of-law democratic governments, focus first and foremost on ‘supporting’ US democracy? And, if so, what does this entail? How do you support a flailing and (arguably) failing global hegemon?

I don’t pretend to have the answers. But it seems that when we talk about supporting democracies, and can’t rely on the USA to show up in five years, then the metaphorical fire isn’t approaching our house but a chunk of the house is on fire. And that has to absolutely be our first concern: can we put out the fire and save the house, or do we need to retreat with our children and most precious objects and relocate? And, if we must retreat…to where do we retreat?


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎

Links for November 16-20, 2020

  • The future of U.S. Foreign intelligence surveillance. “Despite President Trump’s many tweets about wiretapping, his administration failed to support meaningful reforms to traditional FISA, Section 702, and EO 12333. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s foreign intelligence apparatus has continued to expand, violating Americans’ constitutional rights and threatening a $7.1 trillion transatlantic economic relationship. Given the stakes, the next President and Congress must prioritize surveillance reform in 2021.” // I can’t imagine an American administration passing even a small number of the proposed legislative updates suggested in this article. Still, it is helpful to reflect on why such measures should be passed to protect global citizens’ rights and, more broadly, why they almost certainly will not be passed into law.
  • Why Obama fears for our democracy. “But more than anything, I wanted this book to be a way in which people could better understand the world of politics and foreign policy, worlds that feel opaque and inaccessible. Part of my goal is describing quirks and people’s family backgrounds, just to remind people that these are humans and you can understand them and make judgments.” // The whole interview is a good read, and may signal some of the pressures on tech policy the incoming administration may face from their own former leader, but more than anything I think that Obama’s relentless effort to contextualize, socialize, and humanize politics speaks to the underlying ethos he took with him into office. And, more than that, it showcases that he truly is hopeful in an almost Kantian sense; throughout the interview I couldn’t help but feel I was reading someone who had been deeply touched by “Perpetual Peace” amongst other essays in Kant’s Political Writings.
  • Ralfy’s world – whisky magazine. “At a time when the debate over new and old media is raging full on, and questions are asked about integrity and independence, Ralfy is just getting on with it – blogging randomly in the true spirit of the medium and making do it yourself recordings about whiskies he has tasted. Or to put it in his words: “My malt mission over the last two years has been a website called ralfy.com for all things whisky, so long as it’s unorthodox, marketing-light, informative, independent, educational …and entertaining.” // I’ve learned, and continue to learn, a lot from Ralfy’s YouTube channel. But I have to admit it’s more than a bit uncomfortable figuring out the ethics of watching videos from a guy who has inaccurate understandings of vaccines and the pandemics alike. His knowledge of whiskey is on the whole excellent. His knowledge of epidemiology and immunology…let’s just say less so.
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To What Extent is China’s Control of Information a Cyber Weakness?

Lawfare has a good piece on How China’s control of information is a cyber weakness:

“Policymakers need to be aware that successful competition in cyberspace depends on having intrinsic knowledge of the consequences a democratic or authoritarian mode of government has for a country’s cyber defense. Western leaders have for a long time prioritized security of physical infrastructure. This might translate into better cyber defense capabilities, but it leaves those governments open to information operations. At the same time, more authoritarian-leaning countries may have comparative advantages when it comes to defending against information operations but at the cost of perhaps being more vulnerable to cyber network attack and exploitation. Authoritarian governments may tolerate this compromise on security due to their prioritization of surveillance and censorship practices.

I have faith that professionals in the intelligence community have previously assessed this divide between what democracies have developed defences against versus what countries like China have prepared against. Nonetheless this is a helpful summary of the two sides of the coin.

I’m less certain of a subsequent argument made in the same piece:

These diverging emphases on different aspects of cybersecurity by democratic and authoritarian governments are not new. However, Western governments have put too much emphasis on the vulnerability of democracies to information operations, and not enough attention has been dedicated to the vulnerability of authoritarian regimes in their cyber defenses. It is crucial for democratic governments to assess the impact of information controls and regime security considerations in authoritarian-leaning countries for their day-to-day cyber operations.”

I really don’t think that intelligence community members in the West are ignorant of the vulnerabilities that may be present in China or other authoritarian jurisdictions. While the stories in Western media emphasize how effective foreign operators are extracting data from Western companies and organizations, intelligence agencies in the Five Eyes are also deeply invested in penetrating strategically and tactically valuable digital resources abroad. One of the top-line critiques against the Five Eyes is that they have invested heavily on offence over defence, and the article from Lawfare doesn’t really ever take that up. Instead, and inaccurately to my mind, it suggests that cyber defence is something done with a truly serious degree of resourcing in the Five Eyes. I have yet to find someone in the intelligence community that would seriously assert a similar proposition.

One thing that isn’t assessed in the article, and which would have been interesting to see considered, is the extent(s) to which the relative dearth of encryption in China better enables their defenders to identify and terminate exfiltration of data from their networks. Does broader visibility into data networks enhance Chinese defenders’ operations? I have some doubts, but it would be curious to see the arguments for and against that position.

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Election Nightmare Scenarios

The New York Times has a selection of experts’ ‘nightmare scenarios’ for the forthcoming USA election. You can pick and choose which gives you colder sweats—I tend to worry about domestic disinformation, a Bush v. Gore situation, or uncounted votes—but, really, few of these nightmares strike to the heart of the worst of the worst.

American institutions have suffered significantly under Trump and, moreover, public polarization and the movement of parts of the USA electorate (and, to different extents, global electorates) into alternate reality bubbles mean that the supports which are meant to facilitate peaceful transitions of power such that the loser can believe in the outcomes of elections are badly wounded. Democracies don’t die in darkness, per se, but through neglect and an unwillingness of the electorate to engage because change tends to be hard, slow, and incremental. There are solutions to democratic decline, and focusing on the next electoral cycles matters, but we can’t focus on elections to the detriment of understanding how to rejuvenate democratic systems of governance more generally.

Quote

If those responsible for security believe that the law does not give them enough power to protect security effectively, they must try to persuade the law-makers, Parliament and the provincial legislatures, to change the law. They must not take the law into their own hands. This is a requirement of a liberal society.

  • Canada, Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Second Report: Freedom and Security Under the Law, vol 1, Part II (Ottawa: Privy Council Office, 1981) at 45.

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Dissecting CSIS’ Statement Concerning Indefinite Metadata Retention

The Canada Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) released a public statement after the Federal Court found the Service to be breaking the law by permanently retaining metadata they had been collecting. To date, the Public Safety Minister has refused to clarify the numbers of Canadians who have been caught up in this ‘catch once, catch forever’ surveillance regime.

The Service’s statement is incredibly misleading. It is designed to trick Canadians and parliamentarians into thinking that CSIS didn’t do anything that was really ‘that’ bad. I fundamentally disagree with CSIS’ activities in this regard and, as a result, I’ve conducted a detailed evaluation of each sentence of the Service’s statement.

You can read my dissection of CSIS’ statement at Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets.

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France’s Emergency Powers: The New Normal

Just Security:

The new, six-month extension of emergency powers creates France’s longest state of emergency since the Algerian War in the 1950s. The new law restores or extends previous emergency provisions, such as empowering police to carry out raids and local authorities to place suspects under house arrest without prior judicial approval. It also expands those powers, for example allowing the police to search luggage and vehicles without judicial warrants. In addition it reinstates warrantless seizures of computer and cellphone data that France’s highest legal authority had struck down as unconstitutional, adding a few restrictions that still fall short of judicial oversight.

In separate reports in February, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented more than three dozen cases in which the use of these emergency powers violated universal rights to liberty, privacy, or freedoms of movement, association and expression. The two groups also found that the emergency acts lost suspects jobs, traumatized children, and damaged homes. The vast majority of those targeted were Muslims. Those interviewed said the actions left them feeling stigmatized and eroded their trust in the French authorities. The latest version of the emergency law risks compounding these effects.

The decisions to advance unconstitutional and discriminatory ‘security’ laws and policies following serious crimes threaten to undermine democracies while potentially strengthening states. But worryingly there are fewer and fewer loud voices for the rough and tumble consequences of maintaining a democratic form of governance as opposed to those who assert that a powerful state apparatus is needed if normalcy is to exist. The result may be the sleepwalking from governments for and by the people, to those that protect citizen-serfs and harshly discriminate against difference.

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On Encryption and Terrorists

On Encryption and Terrorists:

I’ve come to see encryption as the natural extension a computer scientist can give a democracy. A permeation of the simple assurance that you can carry out your life freely and privately, as enshrined in the constitutions and charters of France, Lebanon as well as the United States. To take away these guarantees doesn’t work. It doesn’t produce better intelligence. It’s not why our intelligence isn’t competing in the first place. But it does help terrorist groups destroy the moral character of our politics from within, when out of fear, we forsake our principles.

If we take every car off the street, every iPhone out of people’s pockets and every single plane out of the sky, it wouldn’t do anything to stop terrorism. Terrorism isn’t about means, but about ends. It’s not about the technology but about the anger, the ignorance that holds a firm grip over the actor’s mind.

Nadim’s explanation of what encryption is used for, and his correlates between using encryption or automobiles for terror-related activties, is amongst the clearest I’ve read. It’s worth the 5-7 minutes it’ll take you to read.

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The Security of Our Election Systems

The Security of Our Election Systems:

Government interference with foreign elections isn’t new, and in fact, that’s something the United States itself has repeatedly donein recent history. Using cyberattacks to influence elections is newer but has been done before, too ­ most notably in Latin America. Hacking of voting machines isn’t new, either. But what is new is a foreign government interfering with a U.S. national election on a large scale. Our democracy cannot tolerate it, and we as citizens cannot accept it.

Last April, the Obama administration issued an executive orderoutlining how we as a nation respond to cyberattacks against our critical infrastructure. While our election technology was not explicitly mentioned, our political process is certainly critical. And while they’re a hodgepodge of separate state-run systems, together their security affects every one of us. After everyone has voted, it is essential that both sides believe the election was fair and the results accurate. Otherwise, the election has no legitimacy.

Election security is now a national security issue; federal officials need to take the lead, and they need to do it quickly.

The effects of a decade of focusing on attack capabilities at the expense of defence is now becoming apparent. And I’d bet that we’ll see democratic governments call for heightened national ‘defence’ capabilities that entail fully inspecting packets. Which will require laws that water down communicative privacy rights. Which will themselves damage the democratic characters of our political systems.