The Challenges of Frontier Technologies

Blog Post
Nov. 16, 2017

This blog is part of Caffeinated Commentary - a monthly series where the Millennial Fellows create interesting and engaging content around a theme. For the inaugural CC, the Millennial Fellows explore how their personal perspectives influence the policies they're interested in. 

Emerging technologies are, and will always be, a source of intrigue and excitement. From my elementary school days playing with front-end web development, to my caffeine-fueled college career where – even as a liberal arts major – I coded with the computer scientists. Now, as a Millennial Public Policy Fellow in the Cybersecurity Initiative at New America, I continue to explore my passion for policy and technology. My story is that of a nerdy kid who lived his whole life in the American South but grew up as a globally connected citizen of the Internet.

Interfacing with networked tech throughout my life and career has given me a deep appreciation for the power of such interconnected tools. While monitoring the delivery of humanitarian aid at the U.S. Agency for International Development, I saw how access to digital information and networked services empowered refugees and opened more adaptable, data-driven solutions for scalable aid delivery. While serving as an intern in Management & Administration at The White House, I mobilized a national campaign and tracked engagement using digital tools inspired by the latest community organizing and advocacy softwares. Despite the positive impacts that stem from technological advancement, a myriad of challenges arise in the wake of rapid development. After several episodes of online harassment and the exposure of my private information following three distinct (and highly publicized) data breaches, I began a more intensive study on the challenges that come with the proliferation of frontier technologies.

Conservative estimates predict that 20 billion devices will be connected to the Internet in 2020 (IHS Markit 2017). The inherent nature of interconnected devices, combined with the ubiquity of such devices, lays the framework for a worrisome scenario whereby an isolated cyberattack can force-multiply its harmful effects across a distributed network of unprotected populations (Stavridis & Weinstein 2016). Of increasing pertinence is the threat of cyberterrorism – whereby a malicious actor can cripple an electric grid, transportation network, or water filtration system – devastating affected communities.

The risks that cyberattacks pose to critical national infrastructures, the private sector, and networked services are already well discussed. Attempts to mitigate these existential risks are well underway, as illustrated by the $50 billion spent on cybersecurity products and services in 2016 (Fick 2017). While most states and large corporations have the knowledge and resources necessary to invest in cybersecurity products, individuals often entirely lack the means to protect themselves in the online space. One need only scan the headlines and read of the latest breach du jour to realize the fragility of individual resiliency efforts (Equifax, anyone?). So, while governments and corporations may be subject to more frequent attacks, individuals are arguably more vulnerable given the comparatively low level of protection available to them. One must ask, then, what happens when policies fail to provide adequate protection to individuals or, worse yet, what happens when policies are created that directly leverage these vulnerabilities?

History is replete with alarming examples: from illegal FBI projects aimed at disrupting the political activities of civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to the 2016 Yarovaya Law passed in Russia that requires data storage and cryptographic backdoors in all messaging apps, allowing the state to monitor, harass, and arrest political dissidents and religious minorities. Academic research details the ways in which networked technologies like the Internet can be systematically used as tools to target real people, ‘subjecting them, by name and address, to vicious, often terrifying online abuse’ (Citron 2014). These examples illustrate the perilous consequences of individual vulnerabilities in cyberspace and also connect personally as I reflect on the anonymous threats and online insults I received while growing up in my small town.

My previous research in international security law demonstrated that minority groups are most at risk of systematic abuse during times of conflict and war, as state powers increase in the name of security. This academic lens, informed by my own experiences, led me to New America. While here, I plan to further study the ramifications of the most insidious and systematic forms of cyberattack on minority cohorts. My ultimate goal is to seek strengthened risk-mitigating policies aimed at protecting the rights of vulnerable individuals and communities, a mission that is supported by my prior research, experience, and engagement with the field.

Selected Bibliography

Danielle Keats Citron. “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” Harvard University Press, 2016. Print.

Nathaniel Fick. “What’s Next for the Cybersecurity Community.” Cybersecurity for a New America Conference. New America. 20 March 2017. Web. 2 April 2017.

James Stavridis and Dave Weinstein. "The Internet of Things Is a Cyberwar Nightmare." Foreign Policy. 3 November 2016. Web. 2 April 2017.

IHS Markit. “Technology: IoT Trend Watch 2017.” Web. 8 October 2017.