Recently, I sat down to interview Garry Kasparov as part of the Collision From Home conference. He’s currently serving as Avast’s security ambassador, and the chairman of a couple of foundations dedicated to human rights, digital liberties and renewing democratic freedoms. First is the Human Rights Foundation, which hosts the Oslo Freedom Forum, and which uses technologies and digital innovations to unite against tyranny. Second is the Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-partisan and non-for-profit organization founded by a wide array of leaders from across the partisan spectrum to uphold constitutional principles in the United States.
I asked him a few questions concerning the intersection of human rights and new technologies such as cryptocurrencies. At this moment in time, with an assortment of threats against liberal democracies and the rise of autocracies around the world — technology can be used against people or be used to help liberate them. It was in that spirit that I interviewed Garry Kasparov. The following article has been transcribed from the original audio, with minor edits for stylistic reasons but with the substance intact.
Question 1: What role can cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum play when it comes to human rights?
Garry Kasparov: As with any new technology, it’s not inherently good or bad. It depends on who’s using it and for what purpose. You can use nuclear technology to build a bomb or a reactor. Now, we hear a lot about the potential downsides of cryptocurrencies because they can help bad guys rob money.
Actually, these fears are overrated. When we look at the opposite hand, we see many upsides of cryptocurrencies starting with bitcoin and others that followed it and blockchain as a technology because it allows for more personal control for individuals at a time where more and more of elements of our lives are controlled either by the state, corporations or outside parties that may somehow have a clandestine agenda. So I think it’s a natural response of technology to help the public regain the control that has been gradually lost to outside institutions.
We do understand that the state cannot function without certain rights to infringe on our privacy, but it all has to be regulated. And we understand the state has power to issue money, but again, if it gets out of control (as it has now), people are looking for alternative means of protecting their wealth and saving their fortune against inflation or uncontrolled state interference with their financial affairs. The good thing about bitcoin is that you know exactly the number — the magic number of 21 million. And we understand the formula behind that. But when you look at the other side, the Fed for instance, you never know how many trillions of dollars will appear on the market tomorrow that will damage your savings.
The same goes for the privacy sector at large — more and more now, people are recognizing that so many vital elements of our lives are now screened and owned by outside parties. And of course, anything that can offer us the opportunity to take back control or some control of our privacy is always welcome. That’s why I think the steady rise in popularity of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology as a concept is inevitable, because it’s a response to the shift of power from individuals to states or other institutions that may act on our privacy without our consent.
Question 2: As the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, are you involved in projects that it advances in bitcoin privacy and the open web (for example, distributing USBs in North Korea), and what broad strategic outcomes would it like to see from its efforts and its interactions with technologies?
I’m not involved directly on a day-to-day basis, though I played a role in one of the projects. You mentioned the North Korea project. We have been distributing these USBs, and one of these methods was to send balloons with hydrogen — this is very low-tech — the balloons had a small package attached to it and a lock that had a combination of acids that blows up in two-three hours. And these balloons had to cross the demilitarized zone. I actually launched one of these balloons myself from the South Korean side. It was quite an experience.
It was part of our goals to send these balloons and to make sure that they can distribute some information. It definitely had some psychological effect on the North Koreans, they got really angry about it. In general, the Human Rights Foundation always looks at new technologies, at these new communication tools, as opportunities to empower dissidents around the world.
Our trademark is the Oslo Freedom Forum, which is the largest gathering of dissidents around the world, representing a wide variety of geographies and ideologies, fighting all sorts of dictatorships. We have no political preferences, we’re not subdued by any political ideology.
For us, it was important for us to address every violation of human rights, and we were trying to help these people, most of them under severe attacks by their governments — even if they left their countries, their financial accounts were hacked, their information was stolen — so we have been providing special training courses. We’ve invited famous hackers to help them and to work with them — we have been using every opportunity to offer them extra protection, and of course blockchain and bitcoin were very natural choices to incorporate into this strategy.
Question 3: In a Fast Company article, you said “enormous power has been allocated to big corporations that collect data and that is one of my biggest concerns”. How would you like to see data custody organized, and should internet companies be less concentrated or less centralized?
This is one of the key issues in the modern world and its relations between individuals and new technologies and its connection between security and privacy. I spent years writing on Avast, so many blogs I wrote about these issues. Speaking about big corporations, first of all, I always tell people that if they generate data somebody will collect it. The whole idea that data can be generated and lost is ridiculous. So we just have to understand that if we’re there putting our lives online, the data will be collected somewhere.
I always do emphasize the difference between KGB-like data collection and corporate data collection. It’s clear that in countries like Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, data collection by state institutions or by companies working with state institutions may cause drastic damage to individuals who are targeted.
It’s not the same in America, Canada or Great Britain or Europe — yes, your information can be used for some purposes you didn’t authorize, you could receive unwanted advertising, it could be used for political causes where you don’t approve — but it doesn’t cause you harm and there are many ways for you to appeal certain harmful cases.
What really bothers me is a twofold concern. One is I don’t think the legislation whether it’s in the United States or Canada or Europe is up to the task of protecting user data. I was totally depressed after hearing the five hour testimony of Mark Zuckerberg on the Hill — the level of preparation or unpreparedness by the senators was staggering. It’s amazing. They had so many staffers, and they could not ask any relevant questions — so you got nothing.
The problem goes way beyond GDPR because it’s about restrictions and potential punishments for the corporations that would allow this information to be abused as you saw with Facebook and the US election.
It’s a complicated issue and one of the problems is how do we put enough pressure on politicians to solve the problems? While everybody is concerned in general about the privacy issue, but when you look at the way people behave with their devices, it’s almost like a joke too. I wish people would practice what I call “digital hygiene” to protect their devices.
That’s one side of the problem — what’s happening in the free world — I think that we’re not yet there to address the issue from the side of legislation to make sure that Facebook, Apple
What bothers me as the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation is a more serious concern — the same corporations that are pretending to be guarding the interests of their customers in American or in Canada — they behave differently when they are making deals with undemocratic, authoritarian regimes.
I don’t understand why on Earth people in China should be treated differently from American citizens. Why people who live in a country where loss of their private data could mean serious harm to them — in many cases prosecution and even death — why are these people treated differently as these second or third-class creatures? While in Canada, the United States and Europe, there are certain levels of protection that is being respected by these corporations. They always demonstrate their willingness to their rules of not sharing their data with the government.
What is needed is to fight for universal standards for privacy no matter where they live — no matter if they live in Africa, Asia or Europe — they should all get the same level of protection. I understand this will lead to business conflicts — countries like China have very strict rules for example. But this is something we should try to enforce as these are American corporations that benefit largely from being based in America.