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Personal Privacy and Sovereignty in Social Networks

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Discussions about privacy and personal sovereignty in social networks should start with general questions. What is privacy in the context of the human presence in cyberspace? What constitutes personal sovereignty in the digital world? Could a social network have something like sovereignty? Who will defeat whom – a whale or an elephant – if a whale is a network, and an elephant is a state?

We know that the inviolability of private life is a fairly traditional, “analogue” human right, which is guaranteed by the constitutions of many countries throughout the world, including Russia. But in the digital world, in particular in social networks, the “analogue” right to privacy is being transformed into a “digital” individual right, which in reality depends on its recognition by the state, the operator of the social network and the person himself. In turn, both the social network and the person have some signs of sovereignty in cyberspace, and in this regard, they become like the state, almost on the same level, which leads to the emergence of inevitable interactions between them. Much depends on how such “digital” human rights and interactions are regulated in reality, rather than just on paper. Here I mean the inviolability of the digital personality, the right to be forgotten, the right to access information technology, etc.

All these rights are included in a certain commonality, which can be conditionally called the sovereignty of an individual. What constitutes the sovereignty of an individual? First, the recognition of one’s inherent dignity, which, as stated in the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is related to “all members of the human family”. Second, as the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation points out, Chapter 2 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation imposes on the state not only the passive duty of abstaining from interfering with the freedom of the individual, but also an active (positive) duty to provide assistance in the practical implementation by an individual of his rights and freedoms. The list of these rights is extensive. However, keeping in mind the topic of our discussion, we will highlight those that are most important for a person in the environment of social networks and Big Data: the right to access the Internet, the right to personal data, the right to be forgotten, the right to access Internet technologies, the right to refuse Internet technologies, the right to mental inviolability, digital privacy, the right to a name, to an image, etc.

In cyberspace, a sovereign person collides with other sovereign entities, and, above all, with the state under whose jurisdiction he resides. State sovereignty, according to the classical doctrine, consists of the supremacy, independence and completeness of state power on its territory. According to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, the territorial supremacy of state power is expressed in the fact that no other power is allowed within the territory of the Russian Federation, which could exist along with it or outside its control. In this regard, it is quite logical to include in this scheme the so-called sovereign Internet, which, like a certain lagoon, can only be separated from the ocean not by a sand spit, but by the insurmountable barrier of the state border.

A sovereign person also collides with network sovereignty. Does it really exist? There may be different opinions on this issue, but in any case, social networks have certain features of sovereignty. Within the network, the power of its administrator (operator, owner) is characterised by completeness, supremacy, and independence. It has its place in cyberspace, which is like a territory. It also has its own population – users. All of them have accepted user agreements, thereby, entered into the “citizenship of the social network” and pledged to obey these agreements.

At the same time, the social network has properties that the state does not have: a transboundary nature, anonymity, public accessibility, and technological unity. Each of these characteristics deserves a separate analysis.

The transboundary nature of the Internet and, consequently, social networks creates a situation where they exist, so to speak, in parallel with the state, since there is no state territory in cyberspace. However, the people, as noted by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, form the physical substrate of the state and are identified with the concept of “citizens”; they, in turn, may be users of a social network. Inevitably there must be certain interactions between the social network and the state.

In a sense, the state and the social network compete in extending their sovereignty over the individual. But if the state, according to the Constitution, is obliged to recognise, observe and protect human and civil rights, then the network does not have such an obligation. It imposes responsibilities through the user agreement. Here, too, it resembles a state, which, with the help of laws, self-obliges itself to respect the rights of the individual.

The range of possible options for interactions between the state and the social network is extremely wide: from disregard, which was typical at the time when social networks began to appear, to prohibition and blocking; from soft, compromising regulations to harsh ones. However, the resolution of the conflict with the help of national legislation bumps into the cross-border activity of social networks. In particular, what is an offense in some countries may not be considered an offense in other countries, which means that the imposed restrictions and sanctions against users may turn out to be just, legal and justified in some countries, and illegal, unreasonable, and infringing on the rights and legal interests of users in other countries.

Let’s consider two options for the legal regulation of social networks, implemented in the European Union and the United States. The EU Regulation on Combating the Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online of March 16, 2021, obliges hosting providers to remove illegal content or restrict access to it within an hour after receiving an order from the competent national authorities. In other words, firstly, the obligated subject is not the owner (operator, administrator) of a social network, but a hosting provider that provides services on the territory of a particular EU member state. Secondly, the duty is not to monitor user accounts, but to comply with the requirements of the supervisory authority of the relative state.

In contrast, the US 1996 Communication Decency Act, Section 230 (c) does not impose any obligation on the hosting provider, owner, operator, or administrator of a social network. According to this regulatory legal act, any provider, and therefore the owner (operator, administrator) of a social network is released from responsibility for blocking and deleting materials that the provider considers obscene, depraved, rude, too cruel, harassing or otherwise. So it follows, that the provider has the right, but not the obligation to monitor user accounts. At the same time, he is released from responsibility both for removing or blocking content that he himself considers illegal, and for not removing or blocking content that the state considers illegal. In other words, the provider, on the one hand, is endowed with the rights of the editor-in-chief of the media in relation to user accounts (the right to remove any content), and on the other hand, he is discharged from liability for the content in the user accounts, since he is not an “editor-in-chief” or “publisher of the entire social network, but only “the owner of the fence on which the ads are posted”.

The models are different: in one case, the provider is obliged to comply, in the other – he has the right to take measures to restrict the dissemination of information. The goals are also different: in the first case, we talk about the idea of terrorist content, in the second case – about the free discretion of a bona fide provider, whom the American law compares to the “good Samaritan”. By the way, recently the Communication Decency Act rules were discussed in one of the US Congress committees, where they caused a deep split between Democrats, who demanded more censorship of dangerous and fake content, and Republicans, who opposed internal censorship in the networks.

Comparing the Russian domestic legislative innovations of December 30, 2020, one cannot fail to notice the bifurcation in the will of the legislator. The new version of the federal law “On information, information technologies and information protection” obliges the owner of the social network to monitor and block accounts, that is, to simultaneously act as the editor-in-chief of the media and Roskomnadzor. On the contrary, the new version of the federal law “On measures to influence persons involved in violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms, rights and freedoms of citizens of the Russian Federation” prohibits network owners from blocking user accounts under the threat of reprisals against the network as a whole.

The formulations used in the laws create a paradoxical picture. For example, a user writes on Twitter that someone is a bastard because he lives in Chertanovo district and works at the Zhilishchnik state budgetary institution. If the owner of Twitter does not restrict access to such an account, he will break the information law, and if he does, he will violate the law on measures to influence.

At the same time, the question of the limits of national jurisdiction on the Internet is quite interesting. The EU regulation states that it should apply to all providers that meet two criteria: first, the provider allows individuals or legal entities in one or more EU member states to use its services and, second, the provider has a significant connection with these countries. In turn, a significant connection is confirmed by the fact that the provider is established in the EU, provides services in the EU and its activities are aimed at the EU countries. The latter circumstance can be confirmed, in particular, by such signs as the use of language or currency, the possibility to order goods and services from the EU, presence in the national app stores, and the provision of local advertising.

The Russian domestic legislator also uses some of the listed criteria for the national localisation of an information resource, but inconsistently and haphazardly. Thus, in the law on information the language and advertising are used in relation to social networks and news aggregators, and in relation to search engines and audiovisual services – only the orientation of advertising. At the same time, nowhere can find by what indicators it is possible to determine the orientation of advertising.

So, let’s summarise. First, the choice of a person between the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of the network is illusory, because a person is always within the limits of state sovereignty – either by virtue of being in the territory, or by virtue of citizenship. Second, the network presumes the legal capacity and relevance of its users and keeps aloof, within the limits determined by itself, from restricting freedom of thought and speech, the right to information, freedom of conscience, freedom of creativity, etc. Third, guarantees of rights recognised by the state for a person can become a reality on the network only if the network has self-commitments, which can be the result of either a global conventional solution or legislative consolidation at the national level of adequate rules for the regulation of social networks. I would like to note that back in 2010, the relevant committee of the State Duma discussed a bill that was proposed by our UNESCO Chair. It was designed to conceptually solve these problems, but the legislator went along the path of creating the so-called “Law on bloggers”, which, as you know, ended in a fiasco.

From our partner RIAC

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From nanotechnology to solar power: Solutions to drought

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While the drought has intensified in Iran and the country is facing water stress, various solutions from the use of solar power plants to the expansion of watershed management and nanotechnology are offered by experts and officials.

Iran is located in an arid and semi-arid region, and Iranians have long sought to make the most of water.

In recent years, the drought has intensified making water resources fragile and it can be said that we have reached water bankruptcy in Iran.

However, water stress will continue this fall (September 23-December 21), and the season is expected to be relatively hot and short of rain, according to Ahad Vazifeh, head of the national center for drought and crisis management.

In such a situation, officials and experts propose various solutions for optimal water management.

Alireza Qazizadeh, a water and environment expert, referring to 80 percent of the arid regions in the country, said that “Iran has one percent of the earth’s area and receives only 36 percent of renewable resources.

The country receives 250 mm of rainfall annually, which is about 400 billion cubic meters, considering 70 percent evaporation, there is only 130 billion cubic meters of renewable water and 13 billion cubic meters of input from border waters.”

Referring to 800 ml of average rainfall and 700 mm of global evaporation, he noted that 70 percent of rainfall in Iran occurs in only 25 percent of the country and only 25 percent rains in irrigation seasons.

Pointing to the need for 113 billion cubic meters of water in the current year (began on March 21), he stated that “of this amount, 102 billion is projected for agricultural use, 7 percent for drinking and 2 percent for industry, and at this point water stress occurs.

In 2001, 5.5 billion cubic meters of underground resources were withdrawn annually, and if we consider this amount as 20 years from that year until now, it means that we have withdrawn an equivalent of one year of water consumption from non-renewable resources, which is alarming.”

The use of unconventional water sources can be effective in controlling drought, such as rainwater or river runoff, desalinated water, municipal wastewater that can be reused by treatment, he concluded.

Rasoul Sarraf, the Faculty of Materials at Shahid Modarres University, suggests a different solution and states that “To solve ease water stress, we have no choice but to use nanotechnology and solar power plants.

Pointing to the sun as the main condition for solar power plant, and while pointing to 300 sunny days in the country, he said that at the Paris Convention, Iran was required to reduce emissions by 4 percent definitively and 8 percent conditionally, which will only be achieved by using solar power plants.

Hamidreza Zakizadeh, deputy director of watershed management at Tehran’s Department of Natural Resources and Watershed Management, believes that watershed management can at least reduce the effects of drought by managing floods and extracting water for farmers.

Amir Abbas Ahmadi, head of habitats and regional affairs of Tehran Department of Environment, also referring to the severe drought in Tehran, pointed to the need to develop a comprehensive plan for water management and said that it is necessary to cooperate with several responsible bodies and develop a comprehensive plan to control the situation.

He also emphasizes the need to control migration to the capital, construction, and the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan of Tehran city.

While various solutions are proposed by officials and experts to manage water and deal with drought, it is necessary for the related organizations to work together to manage the current situation.

Mohammad Reza Espahbod, an expert in groundwater resources, also suggested that while the country is dealing with severe drought due to improper withdrawal of groundwater and low rainfall, karst water resources can supply the whole water needed by the country, only if managed.

Iran is the fifth country in the world in terms of karst water resources, he stated.

Qanats can also come efficient to contain water scarcity due to relatively low cost, low evaporation rates, and not requiring technical knowledge, moreover, they proved sustainable being used in perpetuity without posing any damages to the environment.

According to the Ministry of Energy, about 36,300 qanats have been identified in Iran, which has been saturated with water for over 2,000 years.

In recent years, 3,800 qanats have been rehabilitated through watershed and aquifer management, and people who had migrated due to water scarcity have returned to their homes.

Water resources shrinking

Renewable water resources have decreased by 30 percent over the last four decades, while Iran’s population has increased by about 2.5 times, Qasem Taqizadeh, deputy minister of energy, said in June.

The current water year (started on September 23, 2020) has received the lowest rain in the past 52 years, so climate change and Iran’s arid region should become a common belief at all levels, he lamented.

A recent report by Nature Scientific Journal on Iran’s water crisis indicates that from 2002 to 2015, over 74 billion cubic meters have been extracted from aquifers, which is unprecedented and its revival takes thousands of years along with urgent action.

Three Iranian scientists studied 30 basins in the country and realized that the rate of aquifer depletion over a 14-year period has been about 74 billion cubic meters, which is recently published in Nature Scientific Journal.

Also, over-harvesting in 77 percent of Iran has led to more land subsidence and soil salinity. Research and statistics show that the average overdraft from the country’s aquifers was about 5.2 billion cubic meters per year.

Mohammad Darvish, head of the environment group in the UNESCO Chair on Social Health, has said that the situation of groundwater resources is worrisome.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Technology and crime: A never-ending cat-and-mouse game

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Is technology a good or bad thing? It depends on who you ask, as it is more about the way technology is used. Afterall, technology can be used by criminals but can also be used to catch criminals, creating a fascinating cat-and-mouse game.

Countless ways technology can be used for evil

The first spear was used to improve hunting and to defend from attacking beasts. However, it was also soon used against other humans; nuclear power is used to produce energy, but it was also used to annihilate whole cities. Looking at today’s news, we’ve learned that cryptocurrencies could be (and are) used as the preferred form of payments of ransomware since they provide an anonymous, reliable, and fast payment method for cybercriminals.

Similarly, secure phones are providing criminal rings with a fast and easy way to coordinate their rogue activities. The list could go on. Ultimately, all technological advancements can be used for good or evil. Indeed, technology is not inherently bad or good, it is its usage that makes the difference. After all, spears served well in preventing the extinction of humankind, nuclear power is used to generate energy, cryptocurrency is a promise to democratize finance, and mobile phones are the device of choice of billions of people daily (you too are probably reading this piece on a mobile).

However, what is new with respect to the past (recent and distant) is that technology is nowadays much more widespread, pervasive, and easier to manipulate than it was some time ago. Indeed, not all of us are experts in nuclear material, or willing and capable of effectively throwing a spear at someone else. But each of us is surrounded by, and uses, technology, with a sizeable part of users also capable of modifying that technology to better serve their purposes (think of computer scientists, programmers, coding kids – technology democratization).

This huge reservoir of people that are capable of using technology in a way that is different from what it was devised for, is not made of just ethical hackers: there can be black hats as well (that is, technology experts supporting evil usages of such technology). In technical terms, the attack vector and the security perimeter have dramatically expanded, leading to a scenario where technology can be easily exploited for rogue purposes by large cohorts of people that can attack some of the many assets that are nowadays vulnerable – the cybersecurity domain provides the best example for the depicted scenario. 

Fast-paced innovation and unprecedented threats

What is more, is that technology developments will not stop. On the contrary, we are experiencing an exponentially fast pace in technology innovation, that resolves in less time between technology innovations cycles that, while improving our way of living, also pave the way for novel, unprecedented threats to materialize. For instance, the advent of quantum computers will make the majority of current encryption and digital signature methods useless and what was encrypted and signed in the past, exposed.

The tension between legitimate and illegitimate usages of technology is also heating up. For instance, there are discussions in the US and the EU about the need for the provider of ICT services to grant the decryption keys of future novel secure applications to law enforcement agencies should the need arise –a debatable measure.

However, technology is the very weapon we need to fight crime. Think of the use of Terahertz technology to discover the smuggling of drugs and explosives – the very same technology Qatar      has successfully employed. Or the infiltration of mobile phone crime rings by law enforcement operators via high tech, ethical hacking (as it was the case for the EncroChat operation). And even if crime has shown the capability to infiltrate any sector of society, such as sports, where money can be laundered over digital networks and matches can be rigged and coordinated via chats, technology can help spot the anomalies of money transfer, and data science can spot anomalies in matches, and can therefore thwart such a crime – a recent United Nations-sponsored event, participated by the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) Qatar and the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) discussed      the cited topic. In the end, the very same technology that is used by criminals is also used to fight crime itself.

Don’t get left behind

In the above-depicted cybersecurity cat-and-mouse game, the loser is the party that does not update its tools, does not plan, and does not evolve.

In particular, cybersecurity can help a country such as Qatar over two strategic dimensions: to better prevent/detect/react to the criminal usage of technology, as well as to advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products to fight crime.

In this context, a safe bet is to invest in education, for both governments and private citizens. On the one hand, only an educated workforce would be able to conceptualize/design/implement advanced cybersecurity tools and frameworks, as well as strategically frame the fight against crime. On the other hand, the same well-educated workforce will be able to spur innovation, create start-ups, produce novel high-skill products, and diversify the economy. 

In this context, Qatar enjoys a head start, thanks to its huge investment in education over the last 20 years. In particular, at HBKU – part of Qatar Foundation – where we have been educating future generations. 

CSE engages and leads in research disciplines of national and global importance. The college’s speciality divisions are firmly committed to excellence in graduate teaching and training of highly qualified students with entrepreneurial  capacity.

For instance, the MS in Cybersecurity offered by CSE touches on the foundations of cryptocurrencies, while the PhD in Computer Science and Engineering, offering several majors (including cybersecurity), prepares future high-level decision-makers, researchers, and entrepreneurs in the ICT domain  – the leaders who will be driving the digitalization of the economy and leading the techno-fight against crime. 

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Enhancing poverty measurement through big data

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Authors: Jasmina Ernst and Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah*

Ending poverty in all its forms is the first of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While significant progress to reduce poverty had been made at the global and regional levels by 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic has partly reversed this trend. A significant share of the population in South-East Asia still lacks access to basic needs such as health services, proper nutrition and housing, causing many children to suffer from malnutrition and treatable illnesses. 

Delivering on the commitments of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and leaving no one behind requires monitoring of the SDG implementation trends. At the country level, national statistics offices (NSOs) are generally responsible for SDG data collection and reporting, using traditional data sources such as surveys, census and administrative data. However, as the availability of data for almost half of the SDG indicators (105 of 231) in South-East Asia is insufficient, NSOs are exploring alternative sources and methods, such as big data and machine learning, to address the data gaps. Currently, earth observation and mobile phone data receive most attention in the domain of poverty reporting. Both data sources can significantly reduce the cost of reporting, as the data collection is less time and resource intensive than for conventional data.

The NSOs of Thailand and the Philippines, with support from the Asian Development Bank, conducted a feasibility study on the use of earth observation data to predict poverty levels. In the study, an algorithm, convolutional neural nets, was pretrained on an ImageNet database to detect simple low-level features in images such as lines or curves. Following a transfer learning technique, the algorithm was then trained to predict the intensity of night lights from features in corresponding daytime satellite images. Afterwards income-based poverty levels were estimated using the same features that were found to predict night light intensity combined with nationwide survey data, register-based data, and geospatial information. The resulting machine learning models yielded an accuracy of up to 94 per cent in predicting the poverty categories of satellite images. Despite promising study results, scaling up the models and integrating big data and machine learning for poverty statistics and SDG reporting still face many challenges. Thus, NSOs need support to train their staff, gain continuous access to new datasets and expand their digital infrastructure.

Some support is available to NSOs for big data integration. The UN Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics (UN-CEBD) oversees several task teams, including the UN Global Platform which has launched a cloud-service ecosystem to facilitate international collaboration with respect to big data. Two additional task teams focus on Big Data for the SDGs and Earth Observation data, providing technical guidance and trainings to NSOs. At the regional level, the weekly ESCAP Stats Café series provides a knowledge sharing platform for experiences related to the impact of COVID-19 on national statistical systems. The Stats Café includes multiple sessions dedicated to the use of alternative data sources for official statistics and the SDGs. Additionally, ESCAP has published policy briefs on the region’s practices in using non-traditional data sources for official statistics.

Mobile phone data can also be used to understand socioeconomic conditions in the absence of traditional statistics and to provide greater granularity and frequency for existing estimates. Call detail records coupled with airtime credit purchases, for instance, could be used to infer economic density, wealth or poverty levels, and to measure food consumption. An example can be found in poverty estimates for Vanuatu based on education, household characteristics and expenditure. These were generated by Pulse Lab Jakarta – a joint innovation facility associated with UN Global Pulse and the government of Indonesia.

Access to mobile phone data, however, remains a challenge. It requires long negotiations with mobile network operators, finding the most suitable data access model, ensuring data privacy and security, training the NSO staff and securing dedicated resources. The UN-CEBD – through the Task Team on Mobile Phone Data and ESCAP – supports NSOs in accessing and using mobile phone data through workshops, guides and the sharing of country experiences. BPS Statistics Indonesia, the Indonesian NSO, is exploring this data source for reporting on four SDG indicators and has been leading the regional efforts in South-East Asia. While several other NSOs in Asia and the Pacific can access mobile phone data or are negotiating access with mobile network operators, none of them have integrated it into poverty reporting.

As the interest and experience in the use of mobile phone data, satellite imagery and other alternative data sources for SDGs is growing among many South-East Asian NSOs, so is the need for training and capacity-building. Continuous knowledge exchange and collaboration is the best long-term strategy for NSOs and government agencies to track and alleviate poverty, and to measure the other 16 SDGs.

*Ruhimat Soerakoesoemah, Head, Sub-Regional Office for South-East Asia

UNESCAP

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