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A genius takes on the world of privacy

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Simon Davies celebrates the influential – and perhaps surprising – privacy and human rights work of the world’s greatest-ever chess champion, Garry Kasparov.

It would be a futile task to define Garry Kasparov. The man defies delineation. No sooner had he captivated the world with his chess prowess, than he became a blisteringly effective champion of democratic rights and freedoms.

Kasparov’s analysis of a vast spectrum of topics from history and security through to political activism and international relations is – to express it mildly – impressive. I’m sure there are some readers who would regard this as academic heresy, but I place Kasparov in the realm of Noam Chomsky. However it is Kasparov’s work on privacy that caught me pleasantly by surprise.

The most captivating element of Kasparov’s commentary is that he gets the big picture. He understands that privacy and transparency are synergistic. Importantly, he also provides us with powerful thoughts on the intersection of human dignity, rights and elements of technology such as Artificial Intelligence. And he does so with a marvellous turn of phrase that makes his writing legible to readers outside the academic and legal spectrum.

The most captivating element of Kasparov’s commentary is that he gets the big picture. He understands that privacy and transparency are synergistic. Importantly, he also provides us with powerful thoughts on the intersection of human dignity, rights and elements of technology such as Artificial Intelligence. And he does so with a marvellous turn of phrase that makes his writing legible to readers outside the academic and legal spectrum.

This output was recognised earlier this year when the Electronic Privacy Information center (EPIC) in Washington DC handed Kasparov the Champion of Freedom Award. In doing so, EPIC cemented him in a Hall of Fame that includes some of the greatest privacy campaigners in recent history.

This month – inspired by the award – Kasparov wrote a blog that should be required reading for anyone involved in technology or rights – and most definitely for students of those fields. In it, he draws together core strands that many people often view as being in conflict.

Kasparov notes that the adversarial process is part of the checks and balances that democratic republics are based on.“The idea is to use pressure and conflict to expose and fix the cracks in the system, to shine light and take gradual steps for the greater good.”

The article goes on to explain why privacy – contrary to the view peddled by surveillance hawks – is not merely a middle-class Western value.

It’s important to contrast this with the nature of surveillance and privacy in the unfree world. The method, motive, and mission behind data collection and violations of privacy cannot be ignored. In authoritarian regimes, privacy is only for the rulers while the people have none. The behavior of the regime and its most powerful citizens is shielded from the people. Data collection is used for repression and persecution of innocent citizens. Real people are in real physical danger when privacy protections fail in an autocracy; it’s not a legal exercise, or done to protect people from hackers or terrorists.”

This is a critically important issue that EPIC, Privacy International and other groups have been engaging for many years (see the Google Tech Talk session by Privacy International for an overview).

Kasparov observes: “There could be no organization like EPIC in Putin’s Russia—and if there were, it would just be another branch of the security services.”

Living, as he did, under the mantle of Russian surveillance and control, Kasparov – like Chomsky – is focused on the relationship between privacy and state power.

Our desire to maintain privacy is inseparable from our concerns about the ethical underpinnings of our institutions. If we believe the motivations of authorities are morally sound, and operating in our interest, and the interests of society, we are more comfortable relinquishing a degree of privacy. You might call this “watching the watchers;” those who are in charge of establishing surveillance protocols must be monitored themselves. Their justifications must be subject to scrutiny and there must be a chain of responsibility and accountability. Ideally, we want a system that allows for the collection of information needed for economic, security, sociological, and other purposes, but deters arbitrary collection that does not serve a specific and well-articulated need. Governments and corporations must be transparent in expressing their goals and strategies, and consumers have the duty to question any that make them skeptical.”

These aspects will be well known to privacy professionals and scholars – less so to the population at large. However it is a relief to see minds such as Kasparov discussing the more complex elements of privacy and technology. Chomsky – in an interview with the Privacy Surgeon – has connected these strands.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov at his office in Midtown, Manhattan, on June 13, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov at his office in Midtown, Manhattan, on June 13, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)


Increasingly, algorithms are making decisions with weighty consequences for individuals, companies, and societies. With the field of machine learning growing at a rapid pace, we will often find ourselves in the position of having to evaluate the results of processes that are unknowable to humans. A neural net that reached a particular endpoint did so through a series of steps that its human designers did not engineer, but through self-coding. These trends are leading us toward a future of unpredictable results and even less clear chains of responsibility for those results.”

This issue – algorithmic transparency and accountability – has become a key concern in the privacy field. It is one being addressed by a growing number of researchers and analysts (EPIC, for example, has launched a campaign on the issue).

If we cannot trace the processes of an AI and ascertain how it reached a certain decision, we must at the very least make transparent all elements of the process that were controlled by humans,”says Kasparov.

The mere fact that Kasparov has devoted so much energy to these subjects is an indicator that privacy is thriving and strong. His arguments for greater accountability and transparency can only serve the long term prospects for more robust privacy.