Felicity Ruby On STEM, Edward Snowden, And Threats In The Digital Age

The former head of the UN Office for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom talks about surveillance by the 'Five Eyes', net neutrality, and the threat of nuclear weapons.

Felicity Ruby On STEM, Edward Snowden, And Threats In The Digital Age

Thoughtworks is hosting an Ada Lovelace Day breakfast tomorrow, to celebrate women in the tech industry and as a way of attracting more women to STEM and digital careers. We talked to Felicity Ruby – one of the speakers at the event.

Felicity is the Research and Policy Advisor, Office of the CTO at ThoughtWorks and former Senior Advisor to Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. She’s also the former head of the UN Office for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a former policy adviser at the UN Development Fund for Women and at Greenpeace International. Felicity was the first staffer at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was founded in Melbourne in 2007; ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

Here’s our Q&A with Felicity:

The work that ICAN does is amazing. Abolishing nuclear weapons is one of those wicked problems with so many moving parts and stakeholders. What was the most unexpectedly challenging issue that you faced while working there?

Nuclear weapons are a technology that could end life on earth as we know it in an afternoon. Their catastrophic harm goes on for generations due to the impact of radiation on the gene pool. But the harm isn’t just in their potential use, but in their very existence.  The processes that go into making nuclear weapons create plutonium – the most toxic and long lasting (250,000 years) substance humanity has created. There is still no solution for the tonnes of nuclear waste that has already been created.

The most challenging issue I faced when working to establish ICAN was the disbelief that this category of weapons could be abolished. The taboo against chemical and biological weapons has created regimes for their prohibition and abolition, and the treaty against landmines and cluster bombs are other examples of humanity deciding to evolve from the technically sophisticated barbarism they represent.

The nuclear ban treaty that ICAN has now achieved came about because we galvanised belief that nuclear weapons too could be dealt with by a similar process. It took 10 years, but that taboo has been achieved through the majority of governments on earth being willing to unite up against the powerful stubbornness of the 9 nuclear weapon states, but they now have.

For a lot of the 20th century, nuclear weapons were one of the most obvious ‘existential’ level threats to humanity. Is that still the case today or does it feel like most people and countries have moved past it? And is that a problem – that it’s not so all-consuming in the public consciousness anymore?

There are 5000 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert – they are ready to be fired within minutes. So while fear of nuclear war has diminished since the end of the Cold War, the practical realities of their danger have not reduced. While stockpiles of weapons have reduced, those remaining are more powerful. The problem of climate change adds to the danger, as even a small nuclear exchange would exacerbate climate change exponentially.

There are 5000 nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert – they are ready to be fired within minutes. So while fear of nuclear war has diminished since the end of the Cold War, the practical realities of their danger have not reduced

The work of ICAN has made the point that nuclear dangers endure and can be addressed, and I think the increased visibility of the problem and the solution has helped to raise the issue once again in the public imagination. Being awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize also helped in this regard.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing, urgent existential problems for humanity to solve, beyond the big headlines like climate change or AI?

For me the most urgent problem for humanity to solve is our addiction to war and the incredible waste of the human and economic resources we need to solve problems on weapons and preparation for war.

For me the most urgent problem for humanity to solve is our addiction to war

The permanent war economy and the trade in weapons that kill and mutilate is a problem for humanity because it increases the danger and destruction of war, but that draining of resources also averts our capacity to handle other problems. We need one quarter of current military spending to fix pretty much everything – environmental problems, climate change, poverty, etc – so for me, the profiteering from weapons and its feeding of an inevitability of war, is the crux of humanity’s problems.

Your PhD research, focused on transnational political movements resisting mass surveillance, is really compelling. Mass surveillance is such a terrifying aspect of modern governance. And after Edward Snowden, it seems to have become ingrained into mass consciousness. Even the way surveillance and intelligence is portrayed in popular culture now (in shows such as Secret City) is quite different from how it was imagined to be 10-15 years back. Is that a realistic picture or are things really much worse?

The number of organisations, networks and individuals resisting surveillance has certainly increased in the wake of Snowden’s revelations about routine and global mass surveillance. These movements are still in formation, gaining momentum through sharing strategies and agreeing principles regarding privacy rights, standards of transparency, accountability, a free press and the rule of law that can be expected from democratic institutions in the digital age.

Snowden has patiently explained – initially to three aghast journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room, and through them to the world – the significance of multiple and simultaneous, technical and commercial programs that place backdoors into software and hardware rendering much online infrastructure vulnerable to attack – from cell phone devices to server stacks and email clients to payment mechanisms. Browsers are infected. Encryption standards have been deliberately weakened. Submarine optical fibre cables have been tampered with and tapped. Even offline devices can be ‘illuminated’ and their data read.

Browsers are infected. Encryption standards have been deliberately weakened. Submarine optical fibre cables have been tampered with and tapped. Even offline devices can be ‘illuminated’ and their data read

According to Snowden, the entire Internet is ‘owned’ by the NSA and its Five Eyes partners, including all the networked devices in the hands of individuals, heads of state and their spouses included, and that corporations are along for the ride, willingly or unwittingly.

With everything that’s been happening with Facebook – Cambridge Analytica and the continuing data mining – the past few months, what do you feel most hopeful about with our usage of technology moving forward?

The revelations about Cambridge Analytica have helped people understand and question the manipulation of social media and has possibly prompted a demand for a higher standard of evidence. I’m hopeful about how many people are getting off Facebook, but also the “time well spent” movement that is trying to encourage a more mature approach to our dependence and addiction to our devices. I think this is positive because our devices can be incredibly helpful, if we are not captured by them.

I continue to be hopeful and excited about the use of technology for education and know young people who are using the Library of Alexandria potential of the Internet, it’s flat structures that allow anyone to talk to anyone.

California lawmakers passed a law last week to restore net neutrality. The state and the Governor are now at odds with the federal government and the FCC, but fighting for a good cause obviously. Your thoughts on that?

Net neutrality is the anti-discrimination law upon which the internet is based. Preventing discrimination of content by a service provider is essential.

I continue to agree with the thoughts of ThoughtWorks’ founder Roy Singham when he said, “A neutral Internet puts the power in the hands of the people, not the one percent. Without net neutrality . . .  an organization like ThoughtWorks that creates jobs and sparks innovation could be stifled. The future of the Internet could very well come to be dominated by incumbents and others rich enough to pay new tolls required to succeed online.”

If you had to give advice to women wanting careers in STEM, what would it be? 

My advice to young women entering the field of technology is to seek out mentors and allies and to tap in to the norms and standards that are developing that call out poor behaviour and workplace cultures.

While we have a long way to go, visibility of the barriers and behaviours that prevent women from succeeding in tech is increasing and we can use these positive movements and trends to create lasting change that will benefit everyone in our industry and improve the quality of the services and products we release.

My advice to young women entering the field of technology is to seek out mentors and allies and to tap in to the norms and standards that are developing that call out poor behaviour and workplace cultures

Felicity Ruby (pictured above) is the Research and Policy Advisor, Office of the CTO at ThoughtWorks.

Sneha Khale
With a background in Psychology and Criminology, Sneha has spent the past several years working in the travel and tech industries. As a writer and editor, she's most interested in developing content which is at the intersection of pop culture, gender, and contemporary lifestyle. "Don't let your 'to do' list get longer than your Netflix 'to watch' queue," is her philosophy for 2018.

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