In the ancient world of 1998, David Brin, a scientist and respected purveyor of science fiction, penned “The Transparent Society.” It was a nonfiction work assessing implications of evolving technologies proliferating throughout the world. He argued that personal privacy as people had known it was a thing of the past. Official capacities for intrusive surveillance would become pervasive and essentially insurmountable.
Brin proposed a mollified vision whereby all persons in this inevitable see-through culture would have equal access to multifold dimensions of information. Such would be widely available to everyone sharing the info-stream with police and other guardians of social order. Humanity had now the responsibility to make the best of it. Brin stated, “it is already far too late to prevent the invasion of cameras and databases. The djinn cannot be crammed back into its bottle. No matter how many laws are passed, it will prove quite impossible to legislate away the new surveillance tools and databases. They are here to stay.”
Not so fast. In “Tools and Weapons,” authors Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne agree that astonishing technologies are indeed a fait accompli. Yet the question of privacy rights is a most urgent matter, not to be ignored or trivialized. The subject demands a scrupulous examination and practical programs to ensure its integrity.
President of Microsoft, Smith is the company’s longest-serving executive. The New York Times refers to him as “a de facto ambassador for the technology industry at large.” Browne is senior director of communications and external relations. Smith is the narrator in this wide-ranging and measured reflection on compelling topics involving the threat and promise of high-tech developments.
The authors ask, “As technology continues to advance, can the world control the future it is creating?” A seminal interrogative. But let us not presume naively that “the world” means all of the human family are invited to tables where momentous discussions happen and decisions of planetary consequence are made. Most of the people of this earth are superfluous to these conversations. Their opinions are not solicited in debates involving political, academic and corporate wielders of power.
To give Smith his due, he provides those who peruse his offering a peek into places where potent deliberations take place. He writes of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the need for an ethical framework to ensure the humane application of that powerful and transformative technology. He writes of his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and AI was the topic at hand. As they parted, Francis urged Smith, “Keep your humanity.” Smith touches on refined facial recognition systems and the frightening specter of cyber-warfare. Clearly, his intent is to enlighten citizens to be more informed, alert and to have a better grasp of what is happening with great celerity in Cyberia.
Readily readable, Smith endeavors to make comprehensible challenges facing businesses and governments in a portentous era. The ubiquitous reality of daedal technics and the internet-of-things is acknowledged unapologetically. Here is no philosophical critique of technological society nor a retrospective longing for arcadia. Not a scientist or technologist, Smith is an erudite lawyer with a sober approach to exigent matters under his consideration.
Since the world’s cybernetic network stretches up and down in all directions, it is imperative to tame its excesses to avoid disasters that would cause harm on a vast scale. “The more powerful the tool, the greater the benefit or damage it can cause. While sweeping digital transformation holds great promise. The world has turned information technology into both a powerful tool and a formidable weapon.”
Smith describes the disruptive capability of cyber-weaponry. In 2017, a cyberattack erupted in the U.K. and Spain, disabling hundreds of thousands of computers as it tore through more than 150 countries. The infection was named WannaCry. It “served as a disturbing wake-up call for the world.” Originally developed by the U.S. National Security Agency — for its own covert purposes — the code was pilfered and put on the black market by a nebulous crew called Shadow Brokers. Evidently their raison d’etre is to raise internet havoc. The virus was traced to North Korea.
The first cyberwar episode occurred in Estonia in 2007, “a digital siege called a denial-of-service attack that froze much of the country’s internet, including sites that powered Estonia’s government services and economy. The world suspected Russia.” Ten years later, Russia was again suspected as the culprit behind the startling “NotPetya” attack, which crippled the Ukraine and ran riot beyond that beleaguered nation, “infiltrating multinationals including FedEx, Merck, and Maersk. The Danish shipping giant saw its entire worldwide computer network grind to a halt.”
For a long time the high-tech community eschewed any idea of government regulation. The motto “Move Fast and Break Things” was a ubiquitous mindset among the elite digerati. That attitude has changed, and Smith has been most vocal in an effort to call for a “Digital Geneva Convention” that would provide guidelines for the decent implementation of innovative technologies and protection of civilian populations. In 2018, Microsoft worked closely with the French government and President Emmanuel Macron in crafting the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. The Paris Call garnered widespread support. The U.S. government did not weigh in. Though mostly symbolic, these efforts must continue to be made to ameliorate real threats posed by nefarious applications of cyber technics.
As the world awaits the remission of the coronavirus, the invasive pathogen has reminded the Earth’s populations of the interdependence of human beings and the fragile reticulated reality of planetary society. Despite the rise of autocrats and nationalistic chauvinism, evolving technologies are everywhere, making our world an ever-smaller place. Yet, with the pernicious and destabilizing reach of COVID-19, governments of all stripes attempt more sway over their populations. Last month (March 2020), according to The New York Times, “leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.” Quoted in 2019, Smith opined, “There are days in which one can be pessimistic about the future, and on the darkest days, one can even say that ultimately things are better, but sometimes they get really, really bad before they improve.” The challenges of AI, the power of Big Data as well as social inequality and ecological deterioration are an unprecedented amalgam. “Tools and Weapons” is a worthy compilation of one man’s perspective on our uncertain times.
Read more in the Apr. 22-28, 2020 issue.