Hacking the foreign-policy playbook: Tech-diplomat aims to protect democracy in digital age

  • thepeels
  • February 24, 2019
  • Comments Off on Hacking the foreign-policy playbook: Tech-diplomat aims to protect democracy in digital age

“I think it was Obama’s chief of staff that said never let a good crisis go to waste,” says Casper Klynge, when asked about the past year of tech scandals.

Klynge was referring to former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s comments during the 2008 financial crisis. Fast-forward a decade, and the world is grappling with another crisis, fuelled by the creations of tech’s biggest titans.

“The [Facebook] Cambridge Analytica case, some of the other data leaks — 500 million people have been involved in data leaks in the last 10 months alone,” says Klynge, appointed by Denmark as the world’s first tech ambassador.

  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Casper Klynge, Sunday night on CBC Television and streamed online

“Now, that has been a blessing in disguise in the sense that it sort of makes it evident to most people that there are boundaries, and there are real issues at stake, and it is necessary for us to have a conversation with the companies. Also, to make sure that they [companies] assume a responsibility which is proportional to the kind of influence that they’re exercising.”

When you consider that Facebook and Google have more combined users than half the global population, the influence they wield is monolithic, he says. The sheer size and scale of these companies has forced a power shift not seen since the Industrial Revolution.

Now, amid scandals surrounding personal data leaks and hacked elections, governments are scrambling to catch up.

Enter Klynge.

Denmark was ahead of the curve, dispatching Klynge to Silicon Valley 18 months ago with a lofty mandate: to protect Danish interests and democracy in the digital age.

A career diplomat who has served in Kosovo, Darfur and Helmand province, Klynge admits it wasn’t the easiest of transitions.

Watch: Casper Klynge on why clout is needed to engage the tech titans

Danish tech ambassador Casper Klynge talks about his rough start in Silicon Valley. 0:40

So what exactly is Techplomacy?

While many traditional ambassadors focus their attention on economic issues, Klynge has a different mandate.

“I spend very little time on promoting investment opportunities or export opportunities for Danish companies,” Klynge says. “What we’re really talking about is the big issues. How technology is potentially undermining democracy, election processes. How content, illegal content like terrorism or extremism, how that is a huge problem for all of us, all democratic countries.

And rather than being posted to a specific country, Klynge’s responsibilities are global.

“My embassy is slightly different than all other embassies in the Danish foreign ministry, because it’s almost a virtual embassy. Part of my team is in Silicon Valley, another part of it is in Copenhagen, and a third part is actually in Beijing. So we’re also trying to treat this in a different way, we have a global mandate, it’s not all about Silicon Valley.”

Klynge recently brought his vision for “techplomacy” to Ottawa, meeting with Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould to discuss how Canada plans to protect itself in the lead-up to the next federal election.

Watch: Casper Klynge says his mandate is to see that technology protects democracy

With upcoming elections in Denmark and Canada, Danish tech ambassador Casper Klynge says democracy needs to be protected at all costs. 0:40

Klynge hopes to persuade Canada to join an alliance of like-minded nations, and perhaps even create its own tech ambassador.

“To some extent that’s almost part of my success criteria, that we do get a critical mass around the table. Because it goes without saying that as a small country with less than six million people, we [Denmark] will never be able to move the agenda, vis-a-vis the big technology companies,” Klynge says.

“We need other countries around the table and we need more international collaboration, not less, in the digital age. And that again goes back to why this is a foreign policy initiative.”

When coders cross the line

Klynge is a proponent of creating a sort of Hippocratic Oath for people who write software, to ensure they adhere to code of ethics. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Aside from protecting democracy, Klynge is pushing for the creation of an international code of ethics that all tech companies would need to adhere to.

He points to a recent airline scam in the U.K. as an example of just one way software engineers have crossed the line in the pursuit of corporate profit.

“Algorithms in some airlines were set up to make sure that families were basically split when they did the seat allocation, to make a little bit extra off having families pay to be seated together. And as a family member I’ve experienced that many times myself,” Klynge says.

“But I think the interesting bit is that it also initiated a debate among coders, among programmers, to say who on Earth would actually write algorithms that disperses families across an airline? Is that really what coders should be involved in?

“So I think that resulted in sort of almost a Hippocratic Oath from coders — saying you work in a decent way, you write algorithms without biases — I think that’s an important dimension of it as well.”

Can China be trusted?

Klynge says the world’s government and corporate leaders are currently wrestling with rules and protections that could determine whether technology will ultimately be a force for good or be abused by those in power. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

Questions over ethics and trust are at the centre of much bigger debate — whether or not Chinese tech giant Huawei poses a threat to Canadian security.

Ottawa and Beijing have been locked in a diplomatic dispute since the December arrest of Meng Wanzhou. The Huawei executive was detained in Vancouver at the request of the United States, which is seeking her extradition on fraud allegations.

The Trudeau government is still deciding whether to ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks.

Klynge says whether the debate is over 5G technology or artificial intelligence, China’s influence cannot be ignored.

Watch: Casper Klynge says it’s important to keep the conversation with China going

Amid tensions between Ottawa and Beijing over the possible ban of Chinese tech giant Huawei’s gear from Canadian communications networks, Casper Klynge answers a question on the minds of many: Can China be trusted? 0:40

Whether the finger is being pointed at Beijing or Silicon Valley, Klynge says a much bigger battle is being waged.

“The big debate, or the big conflict if you like, is of course whether technology will be a doer of good. Whether it will promote democracies and freedom, whether it will empower people, bring better health care, better education, or whether technology could also be a means for increased control. And those authoritarian aspects of it — it goes without saying that China plays an important role here that we need to pay attention to.

“But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need a dialogue with China. And one of the reasons why part of my office is there [in Beijing] is, you know, we might not agree with everything, we might not see eye to eye on everything, but we need to have a conversation.”

  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Casper Klynge, Sunday night on CBC Television and streamed online


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