As Technology Relentlessly Advances, Governments Scramble to Keep Up

In constantly evolving technology, governments – ponderous elephants at the best of times – are having headaches keeping up with developments. Drones are a major problem worldwide, threatening aircraft. Social media giants like Facebook have shown to be used to interfere with democratic elections.

In Canada, with a federal election set for Oct. 19, a Nanos Research poll found that six out of 10 Canadians were certain that Facebook would play a negative influence during the campaign and that the site does not adequately protect against such tactics.

EU officials said before the spring elections earlier this year that Russia has been seeding disinformation for years, attempting to erode citizen trust in EU countries. And in the United States, intelligence agencies said Russia surreptitiously interfered in the 2016 election and helped Donald Trump win the White House. Of course, the Kremlin denies it all.

EU officials in Brussels have confronted the Russian misinformation threat with the formation of the Eastern Stratcom Task Force. Its 15 members are charged with exposing Kremlin involvement in the spread of misinformation designed to confuse the population and sow discord. Russia appears to have caught democracy sleeping, with tactics that undermine elective governments and leave the democracies of the world scrambling to mitigate the damage.

But when acting to curtail such abuse, governments in their zealousness also can run afoul of freedom of expression, a keystone of democracy.

India, the world’s largest democracy, routinely employs internet shutdowns – 134 in 2018 – but such action contravenes freedom of expression and goes against India’s stated goal of using internet technology to feed economic development.

There is no win-win with the internet. Vigilance is the key, and governments will have to set up whole departments dedicated to constantly crawling the internet to identify misinformation, a step the EU took with formation of its task force mentioned earlier.

They are running from behind – not just in social media surveillance – but in other rapidly changing fields. The technology explosion and its misuse are not just digital and limited to political interference.

For example, governments everywhere are grappling with the huge surge in drones. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration set up its drone registration with an initial 470,000 of the ubiquitous flying objects. As of February 2019, that number had swelled to 1.3 million. Airports have been forced to halt or delay flights at Gatwick, Heathrow, Newark, Dubai and Dublin thanks to these devices.

Every government is once again scrambling to keep pace with regulations as the drone population mushrooms.

Perhaps the situation is best expressed on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle website, where drone laws are listed by country accompanied by this disclaimer: “Drone laws are constantly changing. To stay up to date on the latest drone laws changes, sign up for an account to receive drone law notifications…”

But perhaps the most difficult technology facing governments worldwide is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who developed the concept of artificial intelligence and the modern computer circa 1950, and Stuart Russell, a renown computer scientist, all opined that AI would change the world – or maybe “annihilate it”, as an article by VOX put it.

Still in its infancy since current computers can only perform limited tasks such as playing chess, they nevertheless have demonstrated the human trait of deviance. AI computers have shown to employ cheating to win at a game.

And as they get more powerful, computers can get more devious and perhaps surpass the human brain for computation. Elon Musk, of Telsa, PayPal and SpaceX fame, so fears AI that he said it is more dangerous than nuclear weapons.

“If I were to guess, like, what our biggest existential threat is, it is probably that (AI),” Musk said, speaking at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology symposium. “With Artificial Intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” It remains to be seen if the lumbering pachyderm that is government will be able to control the demon.