Taylor Owen is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia and the Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. He is International Council’s international affairs platform OpenCanada.org, the Director of the International Relations and Digital Technology Project, an international research project exploring the intersection of information technology and international affairs, and the Research Director of the Munk Debates. His Doctorate is from the University of Oxford where he was a Trudeau Scholar. He was previously a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia, a Fellow in the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, a Research Fellow at the Center for Global Governance at the London School of Economics and a Researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. His research and writing focuses on the intersection between information technology and international affairs.
Notes on Dr Owen’s Presentation
by John Gunn
Michael Francis introduced our guest speaker, Dr Taylor Owen.
Dr Owen has recently become increasingly concerned with how our digital technology, and particularly the internet, is affecting our lives in ways that most of us do not even wonder about, much less become worried or concerned. Our speaker dramatically pointed out how the availability of digital information has become so enormous. This information is not just available to ordinary citizens who wish to use Google, e-mail and all the good features that are now available to us through this technology, but in addition, it has become a tool, for good and for bad, by sovereign states, NGO’s, legitimate organizations and corporations, but also factions of “bad actors” and all those encompassed by that pejorative phrase.
A seminal demonstration of what states may do in a negative way took place during the Arab spring in Egypt when the various disturbing factions in the country, using Twitter and similar programs, threatened to become a major disruptive force to their law and order – “Law and Order” in this case being the perception by President Mubarak of total control of the country by him. These factions operated so pervasively by this means that Mubarak simply chose to shut down the internet. This stopped things for a while, but soon ingenious hackers and others revived a network using telephone networks, faxes, etc. while circulating leaflets with instructions on how this can work, and the world knows the result of the uprising that followed.
In Syria the state chose not to shut down the internet but instead used it to disseminate their propaganda promoting the government’s view versus that of the rebel factions. Of course they were unable to successfully restrict the use of the net by the opposing forces. At the present time the internet via Twitter, Facebook etc. is one of the best tools ISIS has for recruiting new members in their fight in Syria and Iraq. The point to bear in mind is that the software used by the “good actors” such as the CIA, Scotland Yard, the FBI, et al, is also used by the other side. There are many programs that can be used to intercept, encrypt and to de-encrypt information circulating in the internet. There is even a “Syrian Electronic Army”, a branch of the Syrian Government, to infiltrate the enemy via the digital route.
One of the aspects of the digital age that should concern us all is the sheer amount of data being gathered, such a vast amount that it has to be analysed not be people but by software algorithms and the obvious question posed by this is – who is responsible for the result? Is it the person who devised the software implicated, or is it the responsibility of the organization which owns both the equipment and the software? Who then disseminates the output? We do not know what prejudices or motives reside in the minds of those who write these algorithms and so the output of the algorithm itself may well be slanted rather than being neutral and dispassionate. Oversight by the state as to what data is collected and what is done with it and who can see it – our speaker says that this sort of oversight is particularly lacking or too light in Canada. One of the concerns not properly addressed, is the passing of information between various parts of a government – police, border control, CSIS, corporate regulators, etc. Is this unfettered flow good or bad? We are not sure, and it is doubtful if we would be capable of addressing this dilemma if we did know. What data is collected, and who should see it? These are very major questions for the regulators. We know, for example, that the police sometimes park near cell towers where they can easily collect certain data being transmitted. Should the police have this sort of access?
Questions and Answers
“When two states are adversaries, is there any way to know which one is ahead and which is lagging in this race for digital knowledge and data?”
Probably not. The scenario changes so fast that you cannot know. Our speaker made a special emphasis that “Liberty” which we all prize so much is not just the personal liberty we enjoy but the liberty to pursue endeavours, to promote ideologies, to criticise and so on.
“Where is all this data physically stored?”
You really need to ask not only where is the data stored, but where is the software used to acquire it and to move it and to interpret it. Much of the data is in dedicated storage facilities. Much of it is stored in corporate properties and government data warehouses. In short, it is all over the place, and how it is moved and utilized is as important as where it is stored. If, for example, it is going via Trans-Atlantic fibre optics it can be captured at the border; if it is going wirelessly through satellites that can be tapped into.
“Are we better off with this technology than we used to be without it, in the sense that the good actors are winning over the bad actors?”
The conflict between the good and the bad is much broader and with institutions such as United Nations and others, we are probably better off, not because we have the digital technology. The problem to face is that the people who write some of the algorithms on which some important decisions are made are not, of themselves, accountable, and this is of some concern if the decision taken, results in some sort of bad activity.
“What happens in the future to ‘Sovereignty’ as we have known it if all this date can flow so easily across borders?” We must ask why were ‘sovereign democratic states’ created in the first place and take it from there, with or without the internet.
Peter Hebb thanked Dr Owen for his presentation.