Podcast: How democracies can reclaim digital power

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Technology companies provide much of the critical infrastructure of the modern state and develop products that affect fundamental rights. Search and social media companies, for example, have set de facto norms on privacy, while facial recognition and predictive policing software used by law enforcement agencies can contain racial bias.

In this episode of Deep Tech, Marietje Schaake argues that national regulators aren’t doing enough to enforce democratic values in technology, and it will take an international effort to fight back. Schaake—a Dutch politician who used to be a member of the European parliament and is now international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center—joins our editor-in-chief, Gideon Lichfield, to discuss how decisions made in the interests of business are dictating the lives of billions of people. 

Also this week, we get the latest on the hunt to locate an air leak aboard the International Space Station—which has grown larger in recent weeks. Elsewhere in space, new findings suggest there is even more liquid water on Mars than we thought. It’s located in deep underground lakes and there’s a chance it could be home to Martian life. Space reporter Neel Patel explains how we might find out. 

Back on Earth, the US election is heating up. Data reporter Tate Ryan-Mosley breaks down how technologies like microtargeting and data analytics have improved since 2016. 

Check out more episodes of Deep Tech here.

Show notes and links:

Full episode transcript:

Gideon Lichfield: There’s a situation playing out onboard the International Space Station that sounds like something out of Star Trek…

Computer: WARNING. Hull breach on deck one. Emergency force fields inoperative. 

Crewman: Everybody out. Go! Go! Go!

*alam blares* 

Gideon Lichfield: Well, it’s not quite that bad. But there is an air leak in the space station. It was discovered about a year ago, but in the last few weeks, it’s gotten bigger. And while NASA says it’s still too small to endanger the crew… well… they also still can’t quite figure out where the leak is

Elsewhere in space, new findings suggest there is even more liquid water on Mars than we thought. It’s deep in underground lakes. There might even be life in there. The question is—how will we find out?

Here on Earth, meanwhile, the US election is heating up. We’ll look at how technologies like microtargeting and data analytics have improved since 2016. That means campaigns can tailor messages to voters more precisely than ever. 

And, finally, we’ll talk to one of Europe’s leading thinkers on tech regulation, who argues that democratic countries need to start approaching it in an entirely new way.

I’m Gideon Lichfield, editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, and this is Deep Tech. 

The International Space Station always loses a tiny bit of air, and it’s had a small leak for about a year. But in August, Mission Control noticed air pressure on board the station was dropping—a sign the leak was expanding.

The crew were told to hunker down in a single module and shut the doors between the others. Mission Control would then have a go at pressurizing each sealed module to determine where the leak was.

As our space reporter Neel Patel writes, this process went on for weeks. And they didn’t find the leak. Until, one night…

 Neel Patel: On September 28th, in the middle of the night, the astronauts are woken up. Two cosmonauts and one astronaut that are currently on the ISS. And mission control tells them, “Hey, we think we know where the leak is, finally. You guys have to go to the Russian side of the station in the Svezda module and start poking around and seeing if you can find it.”

Gideon Lichfield: Okay. And so they got up and they got in the, in the module and they went and poked around. And did they find it? 

Neel Patel: No, they have still not found that leak yet. These things take a little bit of time. It’s, you know, you can’t exactly just run around searching every little wall in the module and, you know, seeing if there’s a little bit of cool air that’s starting to rush out.

The best way for the astronauts to look for the leak is a little ultrasonic leak detector. That kind of spots frequencies that air might be rushing out. And that’s an indication of where there might be some airflow where there shouldn’t be. And it’s really just a matter of holding that leak detector up to sort of every little crevice and determining if things are, you know, not the way they should be.

Gideon Lichfield: So as I mentioned earlier, the space station always leaks a little bit. What made this one big enough to be worrying? 

Neel Patel: So..the.. you know, like I said before, the air pressure was dropping a little bit. That’s an indication that the hole is not stable, that there might be something wrong, that there could allegedly be some kind of cracks that had been growing.

And if that’s the case, it means that the hull of the spacecraft at that point is a little bit unstable. And if the leak is not taken care of as soon as possible, if the cracks are not repaired, as soon as possible, things could grow and grow and eventually reach a point where something might break. Now, that’s a pretty distant possibility, but you don’t take chances up in space. 

Gideon Lichfield: Right. And also you’re losing air and air is precious… 

Neel Patel: Right. And in this instance, there was enough air leaking that there started to be concerns from both the Russian and US sides that they may need to send in more oxygen sooner than later.

And, you know, the way space operations work, you have things planned over for years in advance. And of course, you know, you still have a leak to worry about. 

Gideon Lichfield: So how do leaks actually get started on something like the ISS?

Neel Patel: So that’s a good question. And there are a couple ways for this to happen. Back in 2018, there was a two millimeter hole found on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. 

That was very worrisome and no one understood initially how that leak might’ve formed. Eventually it was determined that a drilling error during manufacturing probably caused it. That kind of leak was actually sort of good news because it meant that, with a drilling hole, things are stable. There aren’t any kind of like aberrant cracks that could, you know, get bigger and start to lead to a bigger destruction in the hull. So that was actually good news then, but other kinds of leaks are mostly thought to be caused by micro meteoroids. 

Things in space are flying around at. Over 20,000 miles per hour, which means even the tiniest little object, even the tiniest little grain or dust could you know, just whip a very massive hole inside the hull of the space station. 

Gideon Lichfield:  Ok so those are micro meteoroids that are probably causing those kinds of leaks, but obviously there’s also a growing problem of space debris. Bits of spacecraft and junk that we’ve been thrown up into orbit that is posing a threat. 

Neel Patel: Absolutely space debris is a problem. It’s only getting worse and worse with every year. Probably the biggest, most high profile, incident that caused the most space debris in history was the 2009 crash between two satellites, Iridium 33 and cosmos 2251. That was the first and only satellite crash between two operational satellites that we know of so far. And the problem with that crash is it ended up creating tons and tons of debris that were less than 10 centimeters in length. Now objects greater than 10 centimeters are tracked by the Air Force, but anything smaller than 10 centimeters is virtually undetectable so far. That means that, you know, any of these little objects that are under 10 centimeters, which is, you know, a lot of different things are threats to the ISS. And as I mentioned before at the speed that these things are running at, they could cause big destruction for the ISS or any other spacecraft in orbit. 

Gideon Lichfield: So it’s basically a gamble? Yeah? They’re just hoping that none of these bits crashes into it, because if it does, there’s nothing they can do to spot it or stop it. 

Neel Patel: No, our radar technologies are getting better. So we’re able to spot smaller and smaller objects, but this is still a huge problem that so many experts have been trying to raise alarms about.

And unfortunately, the sort of officials that be, that control, you know, how we manage the space environment still haven’t come to a consensus about what we want to do about this, what kind of standards we want to implement and how we can reduce the problem. 

Gideon Lichfield: So… They still haven’t found this leak. So what’s going on now?

Neel Patel: Okay. So according to a NASA spokesperson quote, there have been no significant updates on the leak since September 30th. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, released information that further isolated the leak to the transfer chamber of the Svezda service module. The investigation is still ongoing and poses no immediate danger to the crew.  

Gideon Lichfield: All right, leaving Earth orbit for a bit. Let’s go to Mars. People have been looking for water on Mars for a long time, and you recently reported that there might be more liquid water on Mars than we originally thought. Tell us about this discovery. 

Neel Patel: So in 2018, a group of researchers used radar observations that were made by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter to determine that there was a giant, subsurface lake sitting 1.5 kilometers below the surface of Mars underneath the glaciers near the South pole. The lake is huge. It’s almost 20 kilometers long and is, you know, liquid water. We’re not talking about the frozen stuff that’s sitting on the surface. We’re talking about liquid water. Two years later, the researchers have come back to even more of that radar data. And what they found is that neighboring that body of water might be three other lakes. Also nearby, also sitting a kilometer underground.

Gideon Lichfield: So how does this water stay liquid? I mean Mars is pretty cold, especially around the poles. 

Neel Patel: So the answer is salt. It’s suspected that these bodies of waters have been able to exist in a liquid form for so long, despite the frigid temperatures, because they’re just caked in a lot of salt. Salts, as you might know, can significantly lower the freezing point of water. On Mars it’s thought that there might be calcium, magnesium, sodium, and other salt deposits.

These have been found around the globe and it’s probable that these salts are also existing inside the lakes. And that’s what allowed them to have stayed as liquid instead of a solid for so long. 

Gideon Lichfield: So what would it take to get to these underground lakes? If we could actually be on Mars and what might we find when we got there?

Neel Patel: These lakes, as I’ve mentioned, are sitting at least one kilometer sometimes further, deeper, underground. Uh, there’s not really a chance that any kind of future Martian explorers in the next generation or two are going to have the type of equipment that are gonna allow them to drill all the way that deep.

Which is not really a problem for these future colonists. There’s plenty of surface ice at the Martian poles that’s easier to harvest in case they want to create drinking water or, you know, turn that into hydrogen oxygen, rocket fuel. 

The important thing to think about is do these underground lakes perhaps possess Martian life. As we know on Earth, life can exist in some very extreme conditions and it’s, you know, at least a non zero chance that these lakes perhaps also possess the same sort of extreme microbes that can survive these kinds of frigid temperatures and salty environments.

Gideon Lichfield: Alright so maybe we don’t want to try to drink this water, but it would be great if we could explore it to find out if there is in fact life there. So is there any prospect that any current or future space mission could get to those leaks and find that out?

Neel Patel: No, not anytime soon. Drilling equipment is very big, very heavy. There’s no way you’re going to be able to properly fit something like that on a spacecraft. That’s going to Mars. But one way we might be able to study the lakes is by measuring the seismic activity around the South pole. 

If we were to place a small little Lander on the surface of Mars, have it drill just a little ways into the ground. It could measure the vibrations coming out of Mars. It could use those, use that data to characterize how big the lakes are, what their shape might be. And by extension, we may be able to use that data to determine, you know, how… in what locations of the lakes life might exist and, you know, figure out where we want to probe next for further study.

Gideon Lichfield: Technology has been an increasingly important part of political campaigns in the US, particularly since Barack Obama used micro-targeting and big data to transform the way that he campaigned. With every election since then, the techniques have gotten more and more sophisticated. And in her latest story for MIT technology review, Tate Ryan-Mosley looks at some of the ways in which the campaigns this time round are segmenting and targeting voters even more strategically than before. So Tate, can you guide us through what is new and improved and how things have changed since the 2016 election?

Tate Ryan-Mosley: Yeah. So I’ve identified kind of four key continuations of trends that have started and in prior presidential elections, and all, kind of all of the trends are pushing towards this kind of new era of campaigning where all of the messages, the positioning, the presentation of their candidates is really being, you know, personalized for each individual person in the United States. And so, the key things driving that are really, you know, data acquisition. So the amount of data that these campaigns have on every person in the United States. Another new thing is data exchanges which is kind of the structural mechanism by which all of this data is aggregated and shared and used.

And then the way that that data kind of gets pushed into the field and into strategy is of course microtargeting. And this year, you know, we’re seeing campaigns employ things with much more granularity, like using SMS as one of the main communication tools to reach prospective voters. Actually uploading lists of profile names into social media websites. And lastly, kind of a big shift in 2020 is a more clear move away from kind of the traditional opinion polling mechanisms into AI modeling. So instead of having, you know, these big polling companies call a bunch of people and try to get a sense of the pulse of the election, you’re really seeing AI being leveraged to predict the outcomes of elections and in particular segments.

Gideon Lichfield: So let’s break a couple of those things down. One of the areas that you talked about is data exchanges, and there’s a company that you write about in your story called Data Trust. Can you tell us a bit about who they are and what they do? 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: So data trust is the Republican’s kind of main data aggregation technology. And so what it enables them to do is collect data on all prospective voters, host that data, analyze the data, and actually share it with, politically aligned PACs, 501(c)(3)’s and 501(c)(4)’s. And previously because of FEC regulations, you’re not allowed to kind of cross that wall between campaign and 501(c)(3)’s, 501(c)(4)’s and PACs. And the way that these data exchanges are set up is it’s enabling data sharing between those groups. 

Gideon Lichfield: How does that not cross the wall?

Tate Ryan-Mosley: Right. So basically the, what they say is the data is anonymized to the point that you don’t know where the data is coming from. And that is kind of the way that they’ve been able to skirt the rules. The Democrats actually sued the Republicans after the 2016 election, and then they lost. And so what’s really notable is that this year the Democrats have created their own data exchange, which is called DDX. And so this is the first year that the Democrats will have any type of similar technology. And since the Democrats have come online, they’ve actually collected over 1 billion data points, which is a lot of data.

Gideon Lichfield: So these data exchanges allow basically a campaign and everyone that is aligned with it, supporting it, to share all the same data. And what is that enabling them to do that they couldn’t do before?

Tate Ryan-Mosley: Yeah,that’s a good question. And what it’s really doing is it’s kind of enabling a lot of efficiency and the way that voters are being reached. So there’s a lot of double spend on voters who are already decided. So for example, the Trump campaign might be reaching out to a particular, you know,  voter that has already been decided by a group like the NRA to be, you know, conservatively aligned and very likely to vote for Trump. But the Trump campaign doesn’t know that in their data set. So this would enable the Trump campaign to not spend money reaching out to that person. And it makes kind of the efficiency and the comprehensiveness of their outreach kind of next level.

Gideon Lichfield: So let’s talk about micro-targeting. The famous example of micro-targeting of course, is Cambridge Analytica, which illicitly acquired a bunch of people’s data from Facebook in the 2016 campaign, and then claimed that it could design really specific messages aimed at millions of American voters. And a lot of people, I think called that ability into question, right. But where are we now with microtargeting? 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: There’s kind of this misconception around the way in which microtargeting is impactful. What Cambridge Analytica claimed to do was use data about people’s opinions and personalities to profile them and create messages that were really likely to persuade a person about a specific issue at a particular time. And that’s kind of what’s been debunked. That, you know, political ads, political messages are not actually significantly more persuasive now than they’ve ever been. And really you can’t prove it. There’s no way to attribute a vote to a particular message or a particular ad campaign. 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: So what’s really become the consensus about, you know, why micro-targeting is important is that it increases the polarization of the electorate or the potential electorate. So basically it’s really good at identifying already decided voters and making them either more mobile. So you know, more vocal about their cause and their position or bringing them increasingly into the hard line and even getting them to donate. So we saw this pretty clearly with the Trump campaigns app that they have put out this year.

So there’s a lot of surveillance kind of built into the structure of the app that is meant to micro target their own supporters. and the reason they’re doing that is that’s kind of seen as the number one fundraising mechanism. If we can convince somebody who agrees with Trump to get really impassioned about Trump, that really means, that means money. 

Gideon Lichfield: Let’s talk about another thing, which is polling. Of course, the difficulty with polling that we saw in the 2016 election was people don’t answer their phones anymore and doing an accurate opinion poll is getting harder and harder. So how is technology helping with that problem? 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: So what’s being used is now AI modeling, which basically takes a bunch of data and spits out a prediction about how likely a person is either to show up to vote, to vote in a particular way, or to feel a certain way about a particular issue. and so these AI models they’re also used in 2016 and it’s worth noting in 2016, AI models were about as accurate as traditional opinion polls in terms of, you know, really not predicting that Trump was going to win. But you know, as the data richness gets better, as data gets more, you know, becomes more real time, as the quality improves, we’re seeing an increased accuracy in AI modeling that kind of is signifying. It’s likely to take, you know, more and more, become a bigger part of how polling is done. 

Gideon Lichfield: So what we’re seeing is that this election represents a new level in the use of technologies that we’ve seen over the past decade or more, that are us the ability, or giving campaigns the ability to target people ever more precisely to share data about people more widely and use it more efficiently. As well as to predict which way voters are going to go much more reliably. So what does all this add up to? What are the consequences for our politics? 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: What we’re really seeing as is kind of a fragmentation of campaign messaging and the ability to kind of scale those fragments and those silos up. And so what’s happening is it’s becoming significantly easier for campaigns to say different things, to different groups of people and that kind of skirts some of the norms that we have and in public opinion and civic discourse around lying around, you know, switching positions around distortion that have in the past really been able to check public figures.

Gideon Lichfield: Because politicians can say one thing to one group of people, a completely different thing to a different group. And the two groups don’t know that they’re being fed different messages. 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: Exactly. So, you know, the Biden campaign can easily send out a text message to a small group of, you know, 50 people in a swing county that say something really specific to their local politics. And most people wouldn’t ever know, or really be able to fact check them because they just don’t have access to the messages that campaigns are giving, you know, really specific groups of people.

And so that’s really kind of changing the way that we have civic discourse. And you know, it even allows some campaigns to kind of manufacture cleavages in the public. So it can actually kind of game out how they want to be viewed by a specific group of people and hit those messages home, you know, and kind of create cleavage that previously wasn’t there or wouldn’t be there organically. 

Gideon Lichfield: Does that mean that American politics is just set to become irretrievably fragmented? 

Tate Ryan-Mosley: I mean, that’s absolutely the concern. What’s interesting as I’ve talked to some experts that actually feel that this might indeed be the pinnacle of campaign technology and personalized campaigns because public opinion is really shifting on this. So Pew research group actually just did a survey that came out this month that showed that the majority of the American public does not think social media platforms should allow for any political advertisement at all.

And the large majority of Americans believe that political micro-targeting, especially on social media should be disallowed. And we’re starting to see that reflected in Congress. So there are a handful of bills actually that have bipartisan support that have been introduced to both the house and the Senate that are seeking to kind of address some of these issues. Obviously we won’t see the impact of that before the 2020 election, but a lot of experts are pretty hopeful that we’ll be able to see some legitimate regulation for the upcoming presidential in 2024. 

Gideon Lichfield: Tech companies are setting norms and standards of all kinds that used to be set by governments. That’s the view of Marietje Schaake, who wrote an essay for us recently. Marietje is a Dutch politician who used to be a member of the European parliament and is now international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. Marietje, What’s a specific example of the way in which the decisions that tech companies have made end up effectively setting the norms for the rest of us?

Marietje Schaake: Well, I think a good example is how, for example, facial recognition systems and even the whole surveillance model of social media and search companies has set de facto norms compromising the right to privacy. I mean, if you look at how much data is collected across a number of services, the fact that there’s data brokers renders the rights of privacy very, very fragile, if not compromised as such. And so I think that is an example, especially if there’s no laws to begin with where the de facto standard is very, very hard to roll back once it’s set by the companies. 

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So how did we get to this?

Marietje Schaake: Yeah, that’s, that’s the billion dollar question. And I think we have to go back to the culture that went along with the rise of companies coming out of Silicon Valley that was essentially quite libertarian. And I think they, these companies, these, entrepreneurs, these innovators, may have had good intentions, may have hoped that their inventions and their businesses would have a liberating effect and they can lawmakers that the best support that they could give this liberating technology was to do nothing in the form of regulation. And effectively in the US and in the EU—even if the EU is often called a super regulator—there has been very, very little regulation to preserve core principles like non-discrimination or antitrust in light of the massive digital disruptions. And so the success of the libertarian culture from Silicon Valley, the power of big tech companies now that can lobby against regulatory proposals explains why we are where we are.

Gideon Lichfield: One of the things that you say in your essay is that there are actually two kinds of regulatory regimes in the world, for tech. There’s the privatized one, in other words, in Western countries the tech companies are really the ones setting a lot of the rules for how the digital space works. And then there’s an authoritarian one which is China, Russia, and other countries where governments are taking a very heavy handed approach to regulation. What are the consequences then of having a world in which it’s a choice between these two regimes? 

Marietje Schaake: I think the net result is that the resilience of democracy and actually the articulation of democratic values, the safeguarding of democratic values, the building of institutions has lagged behind. And this comes at a time where democracy is under pressure globally anyway. We can see it in our societies. We can see it on the global stage where in multilateral organizations, it is not a given that the democracies have the majority of votes or, or voices. And so all in all it makes democracy and projected out into the future, the democratic mark on the digital world, very fragile. And that’s why I think there’s reason for concern.

Gideon Lichfield: Okay. So in your essay, you’re proposing a solution to all of this, which is a kind of democratic alliance of nations to create rules for tech governance. Why is that necessary?

Marietje Schaake: Right. I think it’s necessary for democracies to work together much more effectively, and to step up their role in developing a democratic governance model of technology. And I think it’s necessary because with the growing power of. Corporations and their, uh, ability to set standards and effectively to govern the digital world on the one hand.

And then on the other hand, a much more top down control oriented state led model that we would see in States like China and Russia. There, there’s just too much of a vacuum on the part of democracies. And I think if they work together, they’re in the best position to handle cross border companies and to have an effective way of working together to make sure that they leverage their collective scale, essentially. 

Gideon Lichfield: Can you give an example of how this democratic coalition would work? What sorts of decisions might it take or where might it set rules? 

Marietje Schaake: Well, let me focus on one area that I think needs a lot of work and attention. And that is the question of how to interpret laws of war and armed conflict but also the preservation of peace and accountability after cyber attacks.

So right now, because there is a vacuum in the understanding of how laws of armed conflict and thresholds of war apply in the digital world, attacks happen every day. But often without consequences. And the notion of accountability, I think is very important as part of the rule of law to ensure that there is a sense of justice also in the digital world. And so I can very well imagine that in this space that really needs to be articulated and shaped now with institutions and mechanisms, then the democracies could, could really focus on that area of war, of peace, of accountability. 

Gideon Lichfield: So when you say an attack happens without consequences, you mean some nation state or some actor launches a cyber attack and nobody can agree that it should be treated as an act of war?

Marietje Schaake: Exactly. I think that that is happening far more often than people might realize. And in fact, because there is such a legal vacuum, it’s easy for attackers to sort of stay in a zone where they can almost anticipate that they will not face any consequences. And part of this is political. How willing are countries to come forward and point to a perpetrator. But it’s also that there’s currently a lack of proper investigation to ensure that there might be something like a trial, you know, a court of arbitration where different parties can, can speak about their side of the conflict and that there would be a ruling by an independent, judiciary-type of organization to make sure that there is an analysis of what happened but that there’s also consequences to clearly escalatory behavior. 

And if the lack of accountability continues, I fear that it will play into the hands of nations and their proxies. So the current lack of holding to account perpetrators that may launch cyber attacks to achieve their geopolitical political or even economic goals is very urgent. So I would imagine that a kind of tribunal or a mechanism of arbitration could really help close this accountability gap.

Gideon Lichfield: That’s it for this episode of Deep Tech. This is a podcast just for subscribers of MIT Technology Review, to bring alive the issues our journalists are thinking and writing about.

Before we go, I want to quickly tell you about EmTech MIT, which runs from October 19th through the 22nd. It’s our flagship annual conference on the most exciting trends in emerging technology. 

This year, it’s all about how we can build technology that meets the biggest challenges facing humanity, from climate change and racial inequality to pandemics and cybercrime. 

Our speakers include the CEOs of Salesforce and Alphabet X, the CTOs of Facebook and Twitter, the head of cybersecurity at the National Security Agency, the head of vaccine research at Eli Lilly, and many others. And because of the pandemic, it’s an online event, which means it’s both much cheaper than in previous years and much, much easier to get to.

You can find out more and reserve your spot by visiting EmTechMIT.com – that’s E-M…T-E-C-H…M-I-T dot com – and use the code DeepTech50 for $50 off your ticket. Again, that’s EmTechMIT.com with the discount code DeepTech50. 

Deep Tech is written and produced by Anthony Green and edited by Jennifer Strong and Michael Reilly. I’m Gideon Lichfield. Thanks for listening.

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