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HKS Carr Center Hosts Panel on Future of Technology, Policy, and Human Rights

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights is located at 79 John F. Kennedy St. in Cambridge.
The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights is located at 79 John F. Kennedy St. in Cambridge. By Santiago A. Saldivar
By Isabella G. Schauble and Jennifer Y. Song, Contributing Writers

The Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy hosted a virtual panel on the implications of technology on ethics and human rights Thursday afternoon.

The talk is part of the ongoing series “Towards Life 3.0: Ethics and Technology in the 21st Century,” which examines emerging technologies and their impact on modern society. The event featured Steven Feldstein, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, and was moderated by Carr Center Director Mathias Risse and Sarah Hubbard, a fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Feldstein opened the event by discussing the increased use of digital tools, such as online surveillance and censorship techniques, by political leaders to control digital communications. According to Feldstein, these tools offer built-in advantages for leaders to exploit.

“There’s a lower prospect for public backlash,” Feldstein said. “And over the long term, there tends to be lower cost associated with this type of surveillance or censorship techniques versus traditional methods.”

When asked about solving ethical issues in technology, Feldstein said “the problem isn’t really technological — even though it is technology, we tend to think about solutions in terms of what kind of fixes can we make.”

“I think a better analogy is arms control,” he added.

Feldstein suggested that penalizing intelligence firms from developing spyware could be a solution to “help cut down to the most sophisticated military grade technology.”

Besides concerns with big data, technological risks have also emerged in the physical battlefield, with countries such as Turkey and Russia on the edge of developing “fully autonomous killer drones,” Feldstein said.

“If more states are convinced that autonomous drones are the key to the future of war, then they will be motivated to pour resources into developing these technologies,” Feldstein said. “And due to the open technological revolution where innovation has shifted from governments to private commercial firms, a wider group of countries can acquire advanced tools for military uses.”

“One dimension of that, I think, has been Russia seeking to co-op Ukraine’s digital infrastructure,” he said. “They targeted the TV tower because they recognize that severing the ability of Ukrainians to either consume or produce information would be key to the Russian forces being able to assert control very quickly over Ukraine.”

“It’s incumbent upon citizens, civil society, researchers, academics, and others to work closely with policymakers to inform them of risks, and to help push for action when it comes to legislation, directives, and so forth,” Feldstein added.

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