The Promise and Perils of Big Tech

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Navy Rear Adm. Mat Winter, left, and Navy Adm. Jonathan Greenert with the Navy-sponsored Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, Washington, Feb. 4, 2015 (Department of Defense photo).
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Technology has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for the world’s populations, but there are no guarantees it will. Concerns remain about everything from how the growing digital divide risks leaving large swathes of society—and the world—behind, to questions about the security of data and its potential weaponization. And, of course, there is the ongoing debate around how technology and information platforms can be used to undermine democratic processes, including elections.

To address these concerns, a panel of experts assembled by the United Nations in 2019 called for a “multistakeholder” approach that would convene governments, members of civil society, academics, technology experts and the private sector in an attempt to develop norms and standards around these technologies. Even they could not agree on what this structure might actually look like, though, underscoring how difficult it will be to ensure that technology is harnessed for everyone’s benefit.

The risks are particularly acute under authoritarian regimes, which are more interested in utilizing new technologies to strengthen their grip on power—and stifling dissent—than in having their hands tied by whatever multistakeholder vision ultimately emerges. There are also the questions raised by technological advances in weaponry—particularly the ethical questions and legal concerns surrounding autonomous weapons that remove humans from the decision-making chain.

More immediately, the role of Big Tech in our daily lives has put an unprecedented degree of power and influence in the hands of private companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter. That has led to growing calls for government oversight and regulation with regard to data privacy and the policing of online speech. Technology, particularly the advent of 5G telecom infrastructure, has also become a central feature of the strategic rivalry between the U.S. and China, even as “tech protectionism,” “tech nationalism” and “tech sovereignty” have become buzzwords in policy debates. And the proliferation of cyber espionage and cyber attacks by both state and nonstate actors alike has added new tools, but also new vulnerabilities, to the international security landscape.

Despite the challenges they pose to governance and society, technological innovations will continue to emerge. In the absence of any global agreement, there is still an opportunity for governments to seize on the benefits these advances might bring, while encouraging their ethical and democratic use.

WPR has covered technology and its role in global affairs in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. How will the spread of drone technology and the advent of artificial intelligence affect the global balance of power? What steps will governments take to prevent digital attacks on future elections—and critical infrastructure? Can governments and the private sector rein in weaponized disinformation without trampling on online freedom of speech? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

The War in Ukraine Is a Gamechanger for Drones and UAVs

Drones are all over the battlefields of the war in Ukraine, from small and cheap commercial systems used for reconnaissance to military platforms capable of precision strikes against armored targets. Ulrike Franke joins Trend Lines to discuss the ramifications of what we’ve learned so far for military planners and policymakers.

Tech Regulation, Internet Governance and Dissent

Nations are struggling in their effort to strike a balance between digital freedom and protecting people from the dangers that the internet and information technology can unleash—from hate speech to attacks on privacy. Authoritarian countries, having recognized how technology can be used to organize opposition, are now increasingly deploying digital blockades at politically fraught moments, while using digital tools like spyware and surveillance technologies to target critics and silence dissent. Even European countries, in their efforts to regulate content, risk reducing free and open access to information.

Artificial Intelligence, Crypto and Tech Protectionism

AI is not a single technology, but a range of applications, including facial recognition and natural language processing. Though the true advent of AI remains on the horizon, the race is already on among the great powers to take the lead in developing its potential, with implications for the global balance of power. In the meantime, strategic competition between the U.S. and China has increasingly included battles over who will dominate future technologies like 5G networks, but also apps, algorithms, chips and, most recently, cryptocurrencies.

Drones, Autonomous Weapons and “Killer Robots”

Like much technology, drones bring great promise, including the ability to deliver medicines and other supplies to remote locations. But they are primarily associated with warfare and especially the United States’ expanded and controversial use of them over the past decade in the Middle East and Africa. Washington’s example may have sparked a global arms race, at a time when drones are increasingly accessible to unsavory groups, making them a growing risk to domestic security. Meanwhile, the emergence of technologies enabling weapon systems to act autonomously, removing humans from the decision-making chain, has raised concerns over the ethical, legal and practical challenges of machines making potentially lethal decisions. For now, the threat remains a hypothetical one, but efforts to address it already face challenges.

Cyberattacks and the Challenge of Securing Cyberspace

As public and private sector activity has become increasingly dependent on the internet and digital networks, the threat posed by cyberespionage and cybercrime has grown accordingly. Attention has long been focused on state actors in cyberspace, particularly with regard to espionage and military uses of the cyber domain. But a series of high-profile ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure in the U.S. and elsewhere has shifted attention to cybercrime committed by hackers unaffiliated with governments.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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