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Digitalands: Law and order in digital societies

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Data is becoming a precious resource, one that could be traded and applied to benefit – but also influence – individuals and societies. For many users, data privacy is a scarce concept or even a privilege. Today we are left with fewer options to opt-out from the digital space without facing limited (even completely denied) commercial and civic services.

Recent exponential computational abilities further enable individuals, organizations and governments to accumulate, cross-reference and analyze our public, personal and biometric data. These new surveillance technologies embedded in our devices, apps and platforms pose greater risks of intentional and unintentional subversive use of our data. This is an especially acute issue as we step into a widespread application of spatial computing, which would enable data collection in our physical spaces.

The first episode of Futurithmic’s documentary series looks at how physical and digital spaces will merge with the help of augmented reality.

With the rise of borderless corporations and services, states will need to examine their role in legislation and data protection. Let’s look at which countries apply themselves for the service of their citizens and create appropriate legislation and data protection laws, versus the countries using technology to achieve Digital Authoritarianism. 

Digital governance in Europe

One European country is at the forefront of forming a digital society. Estonia launched one of the most progressive and ambitious initiatives so far in relation to digital state and digital citizenship. The e-Estonia strategic vision kicked off as early as 1998, promoting e-governance as a strategic choice for Estonia to improve the state’s competitiveness and increase the well-being of its people. 

The path to implementing Estonia’s 2020 digital agenda includes ambitious steps to achieve Real-Time Economy (RTE) and governance. Estonia is heavily invested in infrastructural shifts, e-service expansion, as well as cybersecurity measures to ensure citizens also have greater control over their personal data1

The path to implementing Estonia’s 2020 digital agenda includes ambitious steps to achieve Real-Time Economy (RTE) and governance.

These services are offered to Estonian citizens as well as those from other countries. In 2014, Estonia launched the virtual residence or e-residence program. To maintain governance continuity for the Republic of Estonia and origin states, the concept of a “data embassy” was introduced, meaning “digital copies of all data and information systems critical for the functioning of the state will be securely preserved in ‘virtual embassies’ located in other countries.”

Many countries are racing towards an integrated digital market – Europe’s Digital Single Market initiative aims to boost the European digital industry and to build a unified European data economy. But such high aspirations also carry high stakes. 

The European Union has been a pioneer in creating data protection rules and regulations, launching the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). These regulations are designed to align data privacy laws across Europe, protect and empower EU citizens with data ownership, as well as control data mining and usage by public and private organizations. 

To confront the borderless e-corporation loophole, GDPR applies to any establishments and organizations that offer services and/or goods to EU citizens. As a royal pain in digital marketers’ reach strategy, it’s no wonder that industry experts criticized GDPR as less than perfect, claiming that it fails to offer a real safeguard for consumers, limits their access to information and even reduces the ability to track cybercrimes. 

Young businesswoman standing with phone near the Parliament building of European Union in Brussel city

North American powers still struggle with protecting citizens

Along with the aspiration to maintain leadership in the data economy and exponential technology race, countries such as the United States and Canada can benefit from developing and applying better regulations and cyber protection for their citizens. While regulation violations in the EU by tech platforms is heavily fined, digital rights policies are not heavily applied – at least not towards North American tech giants. 

Some say this freedom afforded to tech companies is the triumph of the free market; others argue it’s the failure of that same free market. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Ian Bremmer
Europe’s New Privacy Law Takes Effect Today. Here’s How the World is Handling Digital Rights” (2018)

The ambivalence around the Toronto SideWalk Labs project, for instance – aimed at creating a smart neighborhood at Toronto’s Waterfront – is an example of the lack of clear data protection regulations. The initiative continues to generate resistance from concerned citizens, putting in question the interests and abuse of data access by SideWalk Labs’ mothership – tech giant Alphabet.

Where data privacy and digital rights are privileges

Different societies apply different tools and ethical approaches towards digital citizenship and rights. China and Russia are probably the most notorious countries to apply digital surveillance technologies and influence tools against their own citizens (and arguably on those of foreign countries). 

While Russia has been known for implementing surveillance technologies against its citizens since 1995, it has also been accused with attempting to influence foreign policies and politics, most recently in relation to automated propaganda and social media coercion. Official US reports accused Russia in meddling with the 2016 US elections and their ambition reaches out to other territories including exerting their influence in Africa. 

China is also considered one of the least free digital spaces in the world. The Great Firewall of China (GFW) is a term used to describe a series of online regulations, censorship policies and surveillance tools used to regulate and block access to the non-government-approved online and mobile communication services. This had seeped beyond the gleaming screens and into the streets. 

Crowds walk below neon signs on a street in China

While the EU strives to have a unified data market and regulations in 2020, China has a more domineering approach to the application of emerging technologies – from AI to AR – in public and private spaces. The Chinese Social Credit System, a rating system that applies online, spatial and biometric technologies as surveillance and monitoring tools, is planned to be fully applied across the country in 2020. Citizens would be rewarded or penalized according to their behavior.

Outside observers who think that what happens in other countries can’t happen in their own are mistaken. Kyle Mathews, executive director at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, Concordia University, articulates this issue well:

“Many human rights activists are waking up to the fact that new emerging technologies pose numerous threats to privacy, freedom of speech and assembly. And while some democratic states have built in measures, such as civil society watchdog groups and the news media, that act to curb the unethical and illegal use of these new technologies, the same cannot be said of authoritarian states. China, in particular, has demonstrated that it has no qualms about using facial recognition cameras and artificial intelligence to track and monitor its own citizens, and in some cases, persecute minority groups… The time has come for countries and private sector companies to agree to a globally-binding framework that protects citizens’ digital and human rights in an era where artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies are increasingly used in an unethical manner.” 

many country flags lining an outdoor pathway

Digital rights are simply rights

While Big Data and AI are fantastic tools that were created with social good in mind, the next phase of spatial computing gears up towards being integrated in our cities and homes. Although Facebook suspended 70,000 data-mining apps from its platform following the Cambridge Analytica investigation, it is still investing billions in spatial computing, biometric data capturing and neuroscience research to market its services and extend its reach

In our new data-embedded environment, it is evident that digital rights are not privileges or of personal interest, but a vital ingredient to obtain personal, social and political freedom. The challenge will always lay in balancing civic rights and creating censored or intrusive protection practices. It is up to our policymakers, service providers, platform builders and ourselves to create sustainable digital societies. 

What can you do about it? 

  1. Get informed about your digital rights.
  2. Gain agency over your digital presence and data – take time to revise and read digital privacy policies. Consider what you are willing and unwilling to share.
  3. Demand policymakers and service providers to respect and protect your digital data.

Further reading

  1. Which had to be further elevated after experiencing extensive cyberattacks. “After its experience with the 2007 cyber attacks, Estonia has implemented blockchain technology to ensure data and systems integrity and combat insider risk, and became one of the most recognized and valued cybersecurity experts internationally. Since then Estonia became the home of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (NATO CCD COE) and European IT agency.” From https://e-estonia.com, retrieved on 22 September 2019.


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