Technology vs. Covid-19: Assessing the Threats
7 OCT 2020
This piece was originally published in The New York Times, and it focuses on Andrea Venzon's and my participation in the Athens Democracy Forum. Click here to read the original piece.
This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.
ATHENS — The coronavirus pandemic is not just menacing the lives and livelihoods of billions: It could also be paving the way for the global giants of technology to harvest ever higher quantities of data from humankind.
That was one of the stark takeaways from the Athens Democracy Forum — an annual gathering of political and business leaders, thinkers and activists held in association with The New York Times. Because of virus-related travel and crowd restrictions, this year’s forum on global politics was a hybrid, with some speakers physically present in Greece and others participating remotely in livestreamed sessions that drew as many as tens of thousands of viewers.
The event’s chief predictor of doom was Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian and best-selling author. Seated on the rooftop of an Athens hotel with his back to the Parthenon — the symbol of Athenian democracy — he had a lively exchange with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
“My greatest fear is that, when people look back in 40 years or 50 years at the Covid crisis, they will not remember the masks, they will not remember the virus: They will remember that this was the time when surveillance really took over. This was the time when democracy failed and authoritarian regimes took over,” Mr. Harari warned. “It’s still in our power to prevent this from happening, but that’s the main fear.”
“There is a lot of talk of hacking computers and smartphones and bank accounts, but the really big revolution we are living through is the emerging ability to hack people,” he added. “If you have enough data on a person and you have enough computing power, you can hack that person” and “completely manipulate them.”
In his tirade against tech, Mr. Harari found an unexpected ally: Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, who was also present in Athens, and whose company was found guilty two decades ago of violating U.S. antitrust law but now enjoys a gentler image than rivals such as Google, Facebook and Apple, which are viewed by some as quasi-monopolies that often infringe on individual privacy.
Democracy “is in a more precarious state today than it has been perhaps since the 1930s, and I think technology is one of the reasons,” Mr. Smith told the forum. He provided a long list of threats — surveillance and face-recognition technology (though he acknowledged that his own company manufactured such technology); the “news desert” created by the demise of the free press and the death of local newspapers; the attacks on Western politicians by groups located in Russia, China and Iran; disinformation; and the vulnerability of voting systems that could be tampered with by a foreign power.
He proposed “guardrails around technology” to limit surveillance and political advertising on social media, promote a healthy free press, and introduce new international norms — “the equivalent of a Geneva convention,” whereby “governments are not permitted to attack the civilian infrastructure of other countries just as they are not allowed to attack civilians in a time of war.”
Facebook’s director of public policy, Katie Harbath, addressed some of the election-related concerns in a parallel session. She said that Facebook was “a fundamentally different company” than it was at the time of the 2016 presidential vote in the United States, and that there was “a lot that we did miss in that election.”
To make sure voters get the right information, she said, Facebook is now monitoring political ads, hiring fact checkers and combating foreign interference. “There will be no finish line in this work,” she said. “Bad actors and adversaries will continue to try to find different ways to disrupt or hurt the integrity of elections.”
The conference also highlighted the many assaults on democracy beyond the Western world — from Hong Kong and Ukraine to Togo and Venezuela. Speaking live from Caracas, Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, denied that his support base had diminished, and once again refused to run in planned December elections as long as there were political prisoners, torture and an absence of electoral supervision in Venezuela.
“What we want is real elections to take place, and not a legitimization of a dictatorship,” he said.
The forum hosted a number of young activists who have taken the cause of democracy into their own hands and are bringing grass-roots solutions to national or global problems. One was the Palestinian-Canadian author and speaker Chaker Khazaal, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, and is now an advocate for the rights of refugees. Also among the attendees were Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvador, founders of “Now!” — a global movement that uses digital tools and grass-roots campaigning to lobby governments and politicians.
One major concern for young people is jobs — and Mr. Harari had another bleak prognosis on the subject. He said the pandemic was actually forcing entire industries to accelerate an automation process that was previously going to take 10 or 20 years.
“A lot of the people who lose their jobs will not have any job to return to, because the industry has changed or moved,” he said, warning of the potential emergence, especially in poor countries, of a “useless class” with unwanted skills.
Greece’s prime minister, Mr. Mitsotakis, agreed that Covid-19 was “a digital accelerator.” But he said his government was rethinking technical education and encouraging young Greeks to pursue alternative careers by learning specific skills and crafts. “Maybe plumbers or electricians may not be outsourced to robots before other jobs are,” he said.
Anand Giridharadas — author of the book “Winners Take All,” about global elites and how they use philanthropy as a tool to preserve an unequal status quo — said so far, the accepted dogma was that “markets are the best way to deliver the public good, and the job of government is to get out of the way.”
He suggested that it was time to make the idea of democracy and of working together for the common good more appealing to young people — to convince them that “the idea of running to be a city councilor is more exciting than the idea of going to Silicon Valley to create a stupid app.