Data-Driven Discussion—Professor Deborah Hurley addresses DISEC


Deborah Hurley, fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, speaks to the committee.


BOSTON: This afternoon, the disarmament and security committee (DISEC) at HNMUN 2017 had the distinct honour of welcoming Prof. Deborah Hurley to the stage for a discussion and Question & Answer period about the role of information and communications systems in the digital age, with a particular emphasis on the role this topic plays in international relations and security.

Prof. Hurley is a fellow at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and is also a self-proclaimed “devoted and devout internationalist.” She is also the Principal of the consulting firm she founded in 1996, which advises governments, international organizations, private enterprises, civil society, and foundations on advanced science and technology policy. She also played a key role in the OECD’s drafting of their Guidelines for the Security of Information Systems.

She began by encouraging all delegates to stay engaged in problem-solving. “I wanted to help build a bridge between the UN Human Rights Council and information systems,” she said. She went on to assure delegates that there are no shortages of issues worth discussion, and urged us to think about and grapple with these issues.

Prof. Hurley’s talk was centered on the ubiquitous information environment that we exist within presently. Hurley described this new realm in saying that it would “blow out our perception of information and communications.” She went on to elaborate on information and computing soon taking the forms of liquids and even gases, like air, and predicted the continued pervasiveness of computing. “We need to heavily consider this environment when we discuss security,” she stated. “Computing is happening all the time. It’s everywhere. We need to keep up.”

The Professor went on to discuss the idea of convergence, and precisely why this idea indicates that we, as society, are looking through the “wrong end of the telescope,” in a sense. She warns us against the common tendency to distinguish science in silos, and, while it is often done to allow for a better understanding of science, its various facets are continuous, not segregated.

“Everything is information,” proclaimed Prof. Hurley. “Our ability to manipulate it really changes how we interface and grapple with the world around us.” In making this claim, an important question is raised: “where is all of this data?” While she offered “The Cloud” as an introductory answer, Prof. Hurley taught us that data is dynamic, and because it is so, we don’t ever really know where it is. Furthermore, as a consequence of its dynamism, whose law applies? Whose jurisdiction as authority over this free-moving data?

It was questions like these that the Professor posed to her audience. She went on to explain that jurisdiction is geography-based, and because information does not “respect” geography, in a sense, international law becomes all the more important. Prof. Hurley called for global solutions that navigate through this issue, citing “harmony” and “adjustment” as mechanisms to achieve this.

Prof. Hurley challenged her audience by raising many important questions, one being “who controls data?” This question has implications for both privacy and intellectual property, and is ever-present due to the fact that this question still “is not settled.” The Professor went on to discuss the issue of proportionality. “Is your solution to the problem proportional to the problem or harm that you are trying to solve?” she asks. “We have a tendency to over-secure things and rely on disproportionate measures,” she says. She went on make an example of India and its lack of birth record and personal information for many of its citizens. “Their solution was to take “biometrics of all the billion people in India in multiple ways… we don’t need that to achieve this outcome.”

Hurley recommends streamlined approaches, as opposed to over-security, when it comes to data and information collection. “Too much information is a juicy target for identity thieves,” she says, in reference to the India example. She went on to explain that attacks on this database of information that size would skyrocket.

Finally, Hurley emphasized the vital nature of multi-stakeholderism in information and data projects within the sphere of international affairs. “Encryption and malicious acts will not stop at this point in time,” she confesses, “but that should not mean that we make technologies and mechanisms inaccessible to everyone.”

During her Q&A, Prof. Hurley was asked what she believed the role of education in combatting extremism in social media to be. “It’s absolutely important,” responded Hurley. “We use technology for banking, healthcare, and even voting… Tech needs to be part of education from the beginning!” Hurley is a passionate advocate for incorporating technology both into security and education, because she believes it helps students (and people) not only become better global citizens, but also appreciate local culture.


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