How to predict the future; eIDAS security; Part I: Human rights + tech

How to predict the future; eIDAS security; Part I: Human rights + tech
Photo by petr sidorov / Unsplash

Some bits about the future: Last week Careful Trouble and I published a new report, A Thousand Cassandras. Conventional wisdom says tech moves faster than policy. So we asked some of the most prescient minds of our time about the ways digital human rights advocates can better predict the future. We found that 1) they do but are often ignored and 2) success at futuring comes from a capacity to understand the past and analyze the present.

I joined the Imposter Syndrome hosts for a chat about my work, out this week wherever you get your podcasts.

If, like me, you were slack jawed and drooling at the magnificent programing at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit last week, you already know that when it comes to tech and political economy: Jennifer Beals Gets It. All the way.

On eIDAS and security: I've just signed a third plea to members of the European Parliament to mitigate the harms of the EC's proposed amendment to the Regulation on electronic identification and trust services (eIDAS) Article 45, which undermines the existing and hard-fought ecosystem of trust in the web.

I have. been. vocal. about how the browser ecosystem is global, not EU-bounded, and therefore once any State can bypass the baseline requirements for certificate authorities (CAs) established by consensus at the CA/Browser Forum, States will abuse that power.

Reflecting on this two-year battle, we might have taken different tacks early on by embracing the governance role of the CAB Forum and ensuring that there are 1) firm actions in place for when a CA has "gone rogue," (ex.) and 2) a document stating the limitations of tiered trust in no uncertain terms. It has been suggested that a special application or browser be used for government services requiring bespoke security like Estonia. Europe could resolve this situation in a way not unlike how Russia relies on the Yandex Browser to authenticate its (banned) CAs.

Given the amendment is likely to pass, it is my hope that browsers will stick with CAB Forum consensus and outright challenge compliance. Leaving a market is a high bar and– when it comes to security– for very good reason.

Five out of 10 ways the internet has made things worse for human rights: The internet has facilitated a new era of challenges and threats to human rights. While it has enabled e-commerce, it has exacerbated inequality. While it has democratized freedom of expression, it has given a megaphone to hate speech. While it has lowered barriers to access information, it has proliferated misinformation. Social movements are online but not in the streets. Governments have privatized surveillance at previously unimaginable scale.

In my 15 years working in tech as a human rights activist, I have never read nor written an opening paragraph like the one you just read.

In the field of internet governance, a pessimist is someone who believes the internet is neutral.

For decades there has existed dogmatic belief in the global, open internet as an inherent force for good, despite a growing mountain of evidence that our health, the economy, society, and the environment are all in decline. 

This article prompts some hard – and potentially vulnerable – questions. What if our optimism delays our ability to respond to problems before they hit scale? What if our happy consensus that the internet is inherently good keeps us working on easy technical problems instead of messy human ones? What if an honest analysis uncovers that the internet isn’t good, or even neutral, but actually a net-negative for human rights?

Here are ten ways the internet has made things worse for human rights. I’m not saying we should disconnect it! I am your unironic uber-tech-optimist who actually thinks this situation is reversible, but first we have to fully confront it. My next piece will be the ten things we can do about it.

  1. The erosion of privacy

With the proliferation of social media platforms, online shopping, and digital communication, individuals now share vast amounts of personal information online. This has made it easier for governments and corporations to collect and analyze data, often without the informed consent of individuals. The dominant corporate business model has led to a loss of control at the planetary scale over personal data, as individuals' information is often harvested and monetized by corporations. This raises concerns about the misuse of data for advertising, manipulation, and the erosion of individual autonomy. Human rights, more broadly, are also affected, including the right to free expression and political opinion, and according to Freedom House have all been on the decline worldwide.

The revelations of mass surveillance programs like PRISM, exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, highlighted the extent to which governments can infringe upon citizens' privacy rights in the digital age with the complicity of corporations. While changes to the internet’s security architecture have responded, users feel– and are– more targeted and surveyed than ever before.

  1. State surveillance, state violence

The internet has facilitated the growth of surveillance states, where governments monitor citizens' online activities, often without proper oversight or accountability. This mass surveillance can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, as individuals may self-censor their online behavior out of fear of government scrutiny. In autocracies, internet surveillance has been used to target activists, journalists, and political dissidents, leading to human rights abuses. The internet is now ubiquitous and essential for information, banking, health and personal communications, so when governments shut down internet access as a means of quelling dissent and limiting the spread of information during times of political unrest or protest, that’s a new form of abuse of state power. These shutdowns violate individuals' rights to access information and communicate freely, and they can have dire consequences in emergency situations when access to information is critical. From militarization to policing, technology only enhances state power.

The Israeli military firm NSO Group provides governments with technology that enhances the state’s control of information and individuals. Its weapons-grade spyware is controlled through export and acquisition by democratic countries, however autocratic regimes remain avid buyers of NSO Group cyber-weapons that have been used to track and murder human rights activists and journalists in various countries.

  1. Intimate partner violence, bullying, stalking and harassment

The anonymity and distance provided by the internet have enabled the rise of cyberbullying and online harassment. Social media platforms, in particular, have become breeding grounds for abusive behavior. Victims of cyberbullying and online harassment often suffer significant emotional and psychological distress, and the online nature of these attacks can make it challenging for authorities to hold perpetrators accountable. Online platforms have been criticized for their role in facilitating human rights abuses. Social media companies, for example, have faced scrutiny for not doing enough to combat hate speech, harassment, and the spread of extremist content on their platforms. The profit-driven nature of many online platforms can lead to a focus on engagement at the expense of user safety and well-being. Importantly, physical, real-world harms are also exacerbated by technology. 

Women have filed police reports across the United States saying they have found tracking devices in their cars or in personal belongings and who, most importantly, feared physical violence. These cases illustrate the degree to which the abuse vector from people who are known to victims is amplified by technology implemented with physical access.

  1. Misinformation and manipulation

The internet has become a powerful tool for the spread of disinformation and misinformation. False information can be disseminated rapidly, leading to real-world consequences. This has implications for human rights, as misinformation can be used to manipulate public opinion, incite violence, or erode trust in democratic institutions. Efforts to combat misinformation often raise questions about censorship and freedom of expression. Extremist ideologies and hate groups have found fertile ground on the internet, where they can recruit, radicalize, and coordinate activities with relative ease. The internet has played a role in the viral spread of radicalizing content that stokes terrorism and hate crimes, posing significant threats to the safety and security of individuals and communities, all at scale.

When George Floyd was killed by police in 2020, protests surged around the United States and online mentions skyrocketed. In the context of a global pandemic and deep political divisions, some of which centred on race, misinformation flourished. The combination of rapid reporting of live events and a captivated audience created ideal conditions to be exploited by far-right forces who sowed doubt, uncertainty and fear about the nature of the protests and the progressive agenda towards racial equity.

  1. Inequality and exclusion

While the internet has the potential to empower individuals by providing access to information and opportunities, a digital divide persists. Many people around the world lack reliable internet access or digital literacy skills, leaving them at a disadvantage in an increasingly digital society. The digital divide exacerbates existing inequalities, limiting access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. 

Governments around the world have been actively working on digital transformation, which involves providing services online, and in some cases resulting in the complete closure of physical government offices, downsizing of agencies, or bureau restructuring– essentially austerity measures. For citizens with limited means, they may no longer be able to complete their paperwork, or work through difficult corner cases, loss or theft, with the help of a civil servant. It is also often those same citizens who do not have internet or smartphone access. For these people, digitalisation is a form of double disenfranchisement. This means that more than one divide is emerging: Offline access is disappearing at the same time that the digital divide persists.

... To be continued... Inquire to reprint.

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