Susie Alegre (Nugent 89) is an international human rights lawyer with particular expertise in human rights and ethics in the field of technology and AI; oversight and accountability; and the protection of human rights in the small island context. I was lucky enough to speak to Susie about the impact of technology on our freedom of thought.
Thank you for joining us today Susie, please can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
After studying French and Philosophy, I spent a couple of years working in Spain on conflict resolution before coming back to the UK to train as a barrister with a view to working in international human rights law. I practised in criminal law and extradition before moving on to an international career and since then I have worked all over the world on issues ranging from corruption in the developing world or climate change and small islands to counter-terrorism and most recently, human rights in the digital world.
How did this then lead on to your work surrounding the Freedom of Thought?
For me, the light bulb moment came with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. What Cambridge Analytica said it could do was take millions of individuals and tell what kind of a person they are based on analysis of huge troves of personal data. They claimed to be able to work out what presses your buttons, how your psychology works and then to use that information to press those buttons with very carefully targeted messages on social media to affect your voting behaviour.
This seems so invasive when you think about it happening, potentially, to all of us walking around with our phones, looking at our laptops or tablets to see what is happening, that it seemed to go beyond privacy or data protection and to the heart of knowing our own minds which is protected by the right to freedom of thought.
How do you see your role in this moving forward?
I hope to help people to understand the ways technology is engaging with our minds, whether it is to read what we are thinking, manipulate our thoughts or penalise us for what goes on inside our heads. It is affecting every single one of us, every day. Awareness raising is very important because policies change as politicians take up issues that matter to voters, so for me, one of the most important things is making sure these issues are front and centre of the way we all think about our use of technology and the way we want developments in technology to go.
It is terrifying to think that we don’t know what the next technological development is going to be or what is around the corner.
Yes, however, it is when we start demanding change that we see change happen. Apple CEO Tim Cook, has talked about what he calls ‘the freedom to be human’ and how if we lose this freedom to be human, which is essentially the same as freedom of thought, that Silicon Valley itself would never have got off the ground. It is important for all of us, including technologists, to get a grip on this now.
Is there an argument that it is just very clever advertising?
Obviously, advertising is part of our everyday lives but what is different in this kind of “surveillance advertising” is that it is delivered to you personally based on an assessment of your psychological buttons and vulnerabilities, rather than a general assessment of what would work with a general group of the population. So, it is the degree of individual manipulation that makes this type of advertising very different.
Has this affected your relationship with social media?
I do use social media, particularly for work, but I use it a lot less. I’m concerned about the “stickiness” of social media and the difficulties we face taking ourselves away from our technology as well as the potential for online abuse that can make it a difficult space, particularly as a woman.
Where do you think the responsibility lies, is with the law or with the companies using micro-targeting?
I think it is a bit of both. The law is there to ascribe the responsibilities and there is a government responsibility to protect our human rights. In the UK at the moment, the Online Safety Bill is being discussed in Parliament. But arguably, some of the levels are already covered by the law – it is more a question of how you can use the law.
For people who might not be aware that they are being manipulated in this way, what advice would you give?
Manipulation is effective if you haven’t noticed it at all. That drive to pick up your phone is not accidental, it is in the design of the phone to make it attractive, to make you want to check your social media or emails every five minutes. Look at how much time you spend on technology and then imagine how that affects the way you think and feel. Then you think about all of the other things you could have been doing when you were looking at your phone.
On the whole, are you positive about the future for human rights?
If you work on human rights you have to be positive, otherwise you would just go home! I do believe in the power of change and so much has changed since I left Stowe; the world is a completely different place, and I wouldn’t say it is a worse place.
One of the real bonuses of our connected world is the ability for activists to have global impact in ways that didn’t exist before the internet. We can all play a part in demanding big changes in the world so that the future, online and off, is one we want for ourselves and for our children.
You can find out more about Susie’s work by visiting susiealegre.com or by following her on Twitter, @susie_alegre.
Susie’s latest book ‘Freedom to Think: The Long Struggle to Liberate our minds’ is available at Waterstones or Amazon