Top Technology Policy Issues

Two authors well versed in the state of the world and the state of technology give a yearly list of how they see the top ten technology policy issues facing us. The list is meant to refer to challenges before us as well as challenges technology could address. Given a new decade, this year’s list applies to the 20’s as a decade.

  • Sustainability
  • Defending Democracy
  • Journalism
  • Privacy in an AI Era
  • Data and National Sovereignty
  • Digital Safety
  • Internet Inequality
  • A Tech Cold War
  • Ethics for Artificial Intelligence
  • Jobs and Income Inequality in an AI Economy

One may disagree with the placement of some of these challenges, such as jobs and income inequality but it is difficult not to agree with the items on the list being important. While many of these challenges are self-explanatory, I needed to review their explanation of the journalism item. If I may paraphrase, it is a profession crucial to the survival of democracy whose lower profits over time have caused a decline. The authors hope that technology can foster a revival that will help not only to protect journalists who have been under attack (particularly overseas where journalists can too easily be jailed) but for the whole field.

Because technology has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives, directly or indirectly, the list as a whole has great relevance in in determining our future and shaping needed answers. What is a concern, though, is how little these issues are being acknowledged and addressed by decision makers.

Deepfakes and Face Swaps

Not long ago a Republican congressman posted a picture of Barak Obama shaking the hand of the Iranian head of state, a meeting that never happened. This kind of face substitution is something that is now becoming not only available but also rather easy to do. With the social media app Tik Tok and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin, both  owned by the same parent company Byte Dance, Face  Swap is either being  thought about or  being introduced, sometimes surreptitiously. Byte Dance who says Face Swap is mainly meant for Douyin also says it is meant to be used for fun, that placing a face, presumably that of the user, on another video or image could be amusing. But that means that the app would have data on the user’s face and could use it ostensibly for its own purposes, and thus, as it did with the Obama picture, be used to spread misinformation.  There is another important issue, what would Byte Dance as well as the social media apps do with all the data they would collect?

It all begs a big question, how are we to know what is real? That is as far as I can see one of the biggest challenges before us, and to my mind one of the biggest danger for the future. As a culture, our propensity to put appearances first will surely keep us from questioning what we see. Our tendency to gravitate towards knowledge  emanating from soundbites will reinforce that propensity, and our general need for comfort will act as a brake to go deeper and probe what we are seeing to hopefully look for the signs that will open the door to the truth—or falsity—we are looking at. Obviously, our culture is moving headlong into these new areas of technology.  And perhaps if we could learn to become more aware of  how quickly we can mistake the unreal for the real and untruths for facts, we could make a small step, albeit a very small one, towards the health of our future.

Citizenship As Big Business

On the one hand there are now more refugees and stateless persons than ever before. On the other, the selling and buying of citizenship is a $25 billion a year global industry. Citizenship is viewed as an investment, marketed as such by its brokers. Wealthy Chinese who don’t feel safe in China, for example, or people who want to be able to travel freely within Europe or start a business there. More than half of the world’s countries have a program of citizenship through investment. In the US it costs $900,000 invested in a business that would create at least 10 jobs. In the UK it costs at least $2.5 million to buy a citizenship. Other countries are cheaper, although sometimes the cost can be surprising. Bulgaria’s is $560,000 close to that of Spain at $550,000 and the Caribbean islands from $150,000 or even in some cases $100,000. One of the most popular is the citizenship from Vanuatu which is $150,000, a program which is only 4 years old. It raises a lot of money for the tiny country which gained independence in the 1980’s and which can identify with what it means not to have a passport. It can take as little as a month and many of the people who have Vanuatu citizenship, which enables people to travel throughout Europe, have not even visited the tiny country made up of some 80 small islands in the Pacific.

One could say this business is a step, however distorted towards the notion of one world and it may slowly be causing a redefinition of what citizenship is—a point the marketers make.  But regardless of how it is pitched, it is an option that benefits the rich and as such contributes to the inequalities of the world. It is also a business open to corruption. Couldn’t a drug lord buy a US citizenship, and at the very least use it to launder money?  And so the issue of the buying and selling of citizenship begs the question: Are the minuses overshadowing the pluses?

School Surveillance

Surveillance systems in schools are a $3 billion dollar industry. Several security companies now offer their services in several states. Basically they monitor, mainly via a number of algorithms, students’ emails not only those written at school but also those written from home. Google searches are also monitored. Although the official word is monitor, the word track seems more apt. The algorithms look for certain key phrases which could, they say, alert them to danger. The rationale for all this, which began after the Sandy Hook massacre, is to save lives. The companies can share dramatic examples of how suicidal thoughts were uncovered, or an instance of when within minutes after 2 boys were overheard going to the bathroom to smoke spot in secret, they were stopped.  Since there are no gun control laws, schools feel the need to engage in whatever they can to protect their students. Many schools now have police officers on their campus, sometimes with dire results. And while the algorithms alert people, the possibility for taking phrases out of context exists and is a real drawback.

 Surveillance is now a fact of life, and it is time we define where and how it is appropriate and demand the implementation of those limits. While some parents have welcomed the monitoring of their children’s emails and have asked for the results, there is something very scary about monitoring the emails of minors who have no say so and do it because we as a society are not able to pass gun control legislation.