The use and abuses of digital technology have hit the headlines in recent months. But can digital technologies be harnessed for the benefit of citizens? We talk to Monique Morrow, President and Co-Founder of The Humanized Internet, about her plans to bring people and ethical awareness back into digital practice.
The recent revelation about the exchange of people’s Facebook data to Cambridge Analytica is just one example of how people’s personal information is being used in complicated ways. It highlights the vulnerability of citizens to abuse in our global and digitalised world and the need to re-centre a system of ethics in digital practice.
The other side of this problem is how our identities are increasingly bound up with our digital footprint and what this means for citizenship. What happens if you don’t have a digital identity, as often happens with undocumented migrants and refugees? Can you expect equal treatment from increasingly security-interested governments and fearful populations?
Monique Morrow, former Chief Technology Officer at Cisco, recently founded The Humanized Internet, a project which aims to put ethics back at the core of digital companies. We talked to Monique about the mission of the project and how they are using innovative new technologies to reconfigure global citizenship.
What is The Humanized Internet as a concept and structure, and what core problem does it address?
The Humanized Internet is a Swiss-based not-for-profit that has at its focus the notion of digital sovereignty, particularly for those people who don’t have it. We also focus on the development of ethics and governance in technologies that are developed especially when digital identity comes in.
Why does this matter? Over the past thirty years, the solidness of our digital identity is what allows us to participate in everyday life, from shopping to education to employment to travel to accessing social welfare.
But many people don’t have a digital identity. About 1.1 billion around the world (over 21% of the world’s population) can’t prove who they are. Ten million people are stateless. They are outside any system of citizenship as we know it.
Moreover, undocumented people are more vulnerable to abuse, such as being trafficked or sold into slavery. We hope that funding the ways to secure their identity is one weapon against these practices.
The mission of The Humanized Internet (THI) is to provide secure, permanent and global digital identity to the world’s population. We believe identity is a fundamental democratic right of all people and offers a foundational element for maintaining safe conditions for those in need.
Do you think the question of digital identity gets to the heart of globalisation of nationality and freedom of movement?
Look at the example of Estonia, where there is a possibility to have a digital identity card no matter where one resides on the globe. Of course, there are the necessary background checks that are performed by the immigration authorities at the cost of 100 Euros.
The evolutionary possibilities are tremendous and imply that the systems as we know today are breaking apart. We need to be creative in our thinking as to what can digital sovereignty look like.
What technology will you be using to facilitate this project?
New technologies, such as Blockchain, offer a promising route out of this problem. Blockchains use the internet’s structure to log and record transactions. Because the Blockchain network is encrypted and decentralised, they are both private and less vulnerable to hacking. Cryptographic hashing, we’d argue, creates an unbreakable layer of safety.
Let’s be very clear: for every technical problem there will be a technical solution, and we will always discover new vulnerabilities.
There’s a lot of detail in these mechanisms which is largely mathematics, but basically what it means is this: the blockchain allows independent parties (people) to share trustable information without any intermediaries. You can see how this resolves all the problems of having large centralised databases.
Blockchain also globalises the documentation of identity. Identity services will become available to all people anytime and in any place.
Do you think you will encounter resistance from people, who have grown suspicious of how technology influences our lives? How do you think you will overcome this resistance?
The growth of mistrust in new digital technologies is why we are bringing ethics and governance back into the discussion.
The growth and complexity of digital data have led to a huge confusion over who and what the data is for. For example, digital data is valuable – that’s why it’s being sold all over the world. But why aren’t citizens paid for that data? Why aren’t they being given a choice about whether to sell?
What will it take to put humans back in control of their data? To give a small example of the scale of the problem. When we go for jobs now, employers always look at your digital footprint – often to our detriment. Yet what we put out there is only a partial snapshot of who we are. It illustrates how we share different aspects of ourselves in different situations and for various reasons. Our identity solutions need to be flexible enough to show and contextualise out multiple selves.
Businesses who don’t believe ethics matters will ultimately founder on their business model, much like Facebook is now. We must create the world we wish to have, not the one we want to avoid.
Are there broader applications of the concept of The Humanized Network?
At the moment, we want to focus on undocumented identities and digital sovereignty, because it is so crucial to accessing essential services like education and welfare.
But we hope that others will be inspired by what we are trying to do and that as a result, new projects will emerge.
We have also been encouraged by some governments and companies who have been willing to engage in dialogue. That is a positive step forward.
Where do you think this concept will go into the future?
There are organizations like procivis.ch and VALID that are doing wonderful work in developing solutions that align with the Humanized Internet philosophy.
We’d like to see The Humanized Internet become a standard in our way of thinking and execution globally. Could our world be a better place while also using the most advanced technologies to improve our lives? We’d certainly hope so, and that’s what we are working towards. Let’s put the individual back into the centre of our universe!
Thanks also to Mark Kovarski, co-founder and creator of THI and Akram Alfawakheeri, board member of THI.