The TechCrunch Global Business Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.
The word “treaties” doesn’t really conjure up images of modernity as much as a dusty history book. But as with other aspects of business and society, technology is rapidly changing the way treaties are monitored and enforced, with profound implications for global governance and international law.
Treaties are legally binding international agreements between countries. Pick any major issue affecting the planet or the people and there is probably a treaty regulating the issue. Climate change, biodiversity, human rights, refugees, labor, shipping, transnational crime and fisheries are among the areas governed by global treaties, which include most countries – including United States – among their members. Treaties are at the heart of global governance, for example underpinning most of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
But for treaties to work, we need to be able to quickly and accurately discern compliance and results. This has historically been difficult – offenders by nature are prone to subterfuge. And even in areas of cooperation, such as scientific measurements and assessments, imprecise, infrequent, and inaccurate data can prevent signatories from understanding how a problem is evolving or whether their solutions are useful.
The era of big data
To meet this challenge, through dozens of treatises, research communities are mobilizing new technologies to produce fertile ecosystems providing untold levels of data and knowledge about the underlying conditions and the measurement of outcomes.
The technology generates orders of magnitude of increase in the amounts of data. Vast ecosystems of instrumentation and computer hardware are being deployed. Today, scientific communities and governments are increasingly combining remote sensing and Earth observation (OT) satellites, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and modeling and visualization tools. As we get better at processing and analyzing this data, we move closer to delivering comprehensive and accurate knowledge in near real time.
While individual technologies have made important contributions, the real power behind these developments is their combined use. Together, these technologies enable what I call “smart treaty systems”.
Consider the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which protects the biodiversity of flora and fauna, promotes its sustainable use and ensures fair and equitable access to the benefits of its use. To determine the ranges and populations of species, biodiversity researchers deploy camera traps and microphones in remote locations that transmit data about animal movements via cellular connections to the cloud. With a single camera generating up to 50TB of data per year, deep learning techniques are used to analyze big data and create maps of habitats and numbers of species. Likewise, drones equipped with video cameras monitor sea turtle migration routes in Costa Rica, with images analyzed using deep learning algorithms trained to identify individual turtles. Meanwhile, thousands of citizen scientists with smartphones are recording and uploading animal sightings to mobile web platforms such as Merlin.
Data from all of these sources is shared with the Global Biodiversity Informatics Facility in Copenhagen, an intergovernmental repository of global biodiversity data. Its records have increased tenfold since 2007, now exceeding two billion records. Together, these data and research inform the work of the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the scientific platform dedicated to the CBD.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have exploited Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders used for vessel safety to combat AIS illegal fishing signals to provide comprehensive global data on vessel activity. Groups like Global Fishing Watch analyze AIS satellite data captured by private companies like ORBCOMM with in-depth learning to locate and map illegal fishing around the world. Researchers are even using AI and ML to identify ships that illegally turn off their AIS systems to evade detection.
It’s not just the environment. Satellites help keep the promise of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. Early in the process, Earth observation data is fed into a dedicated geospatial database and mapping platform operated by ESRI, the Mine Action Information Management System, to create maps of land contaminated by mines. Web platforms also allow individuals to download information about mine affected areas. Mine clearance experts in the field upload more detailed data obtained from a variety of sources, including drones equipped with ground penetrating radar (GPR) and even rats trained with RFID collars to create accurate maps of areas contaminated by mines. Technicians then use machines that combine GPR and robotics to identify (often using AI and ML) and destroy individual mines.
Recent government attacks on vulnerable Rohingya communities in Myanmar show how technology increasingly reveals and documents otherwise hidden violations of human rights and refugee treaties. Human rights researchers have used Earth observation data to track troop movements, evidence of evictions, razing of villages and massacres. Meanwhile, photos and videos provided by individuals via cell phones have been channeled through secure cloud platforms such as the Eyewitness to Atrocities portal. ML and AI have been used to automate the analysis of EO data and video images. Groups like Amnesty International and SITU Research aggregated the data to generate virtual reality visualizations of environments where violations have occurred. OT data was cited in Gambia v. Myanmar before the International Court of Justice. Voluminous Facebook hate speech tapes that fueled the attacks on the Rohingya are also being collected and analyzed using ML for the case.
Risks and Rewards
Despite obvious progress, smart treaty systems are still emerging and experimental. Yet everything indicates that the value of technology is increasingly recognized and will prove to be transformative. Certainly, there are many challenges that must be overcome to realize the full potential of technology. Basically, all the scientific knowledge in the world will not matter if governments don’t act on it and live up to their treaty obligations.
One downside is the regulatory risk around data protection and privacy, especially when it comes to human rights and already vulnerable populations. Safeguards should be implemented to ensure that data is used discreetly and anonymously to the extent possible. AI is another concern. The draft EU AI regulation aims to ban the use of certain technologies such as biometric identification systems in public places, and, like its General Data Protection Regulation, this would affect activities outside of Europe. Likewise, although the public sector geospatial community has made open data a global standard, efforts must be made to integrate the expansion of private sector geospatial data into global governance efforts.
Although treaties are creatures of diplomacy and generally viewed as rigid in nature, the history of the application of technology shows a dynamic process of bottom-up self-organization by various communities in the public, private, and professional sectors. nonprofit and academic. These activities have the potential to make major contributions that offer hope for our ability to overcome many important global challenges.