Catalyze: The talks from TED@NAS

Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, opens TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Science catalyzes progress. It allows us to explore our biggest questions, generate new ideas and seek out solutions. At TED@NAS, 19 speakers and performers explored how science is igniting change and fueling our way forward — through radical collaboration, quantum leaps and bold thinking.

The event: TED@NAS, for which The National Academy of Sciences, The Kavli Foundation and the Simons Foundation partnered with TED to offer an exciting day of original TED Talks, hosted by TED’s David Biello and Briar Goldberg

When and where: Friday, November 1, 2019, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC

Special performance: A poetry reading by Marilyn Nelson

Opening and closing remarks: Courtesy of Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences; Robert Conn, President of Kavli Foundation; and Marilyn Simons and Jim Simons, cofounders of the Simons Foundation

The talks in brief:

Jim Hudspeth, ear enthusiast

Big idea: Meet “hair cells”: the beautiful and mysterious cells in your inner ear, which allow you to hear the world around you.

Why: Jim Hudspeth has spent the last 45 years studying hair cells, the tiny biological powerhouses that make hearing possible (and that, despite their name, have nothing to do with the kind of hair that grows on your head). On top of each hair cell are “stereocilia”: microscopic rods that twitch back and forth in response to sound, turning vibrations into electrical signals that your brain can interpret. The louder the sound, the more they tremble — with a response time that’s fully a thousand times faster than our other senses. Hudspeth and his team are working to decipher the molecular strategy of hair cells in the hopes of finding a way to reverse hearing problems.

Fun fact: In a very quiet environment, such as a sound chamber, 70 percent of normally hearing people emit sound from their ears!

Paul McEuen and Marc Miskin, micro-roboticists

Big idea: Paul McEuen, Marc Miskin and their colleagues create tiny robots to navigate microscopic worlds. Someday scientists hope to “train” these robots to study (and potentially battle) crop diseases, cancer cells and a host of other microbial menaces.

How: McEuen and Miskin enlist existing semiconductor components and new, innovative materials to create laser-programmable, remotely piloted “robots” with folding platinum legs and brains 1/10,000th the size of a smartphone. These robots could someday revolutionize our understanding of an unseen universe.

Quote of the talk: “Instead of just watching the micro-world, we as humans can now build technology to shape it, to interact with it, to engineer it. In 30 years, when my son is my age, what will we do with that ability?”

Amanda Schochet, ecologist, micro-museum maven

Big Idea: Many large-scale solutions to the world’s problems are simply too slow. To help speed things up, we need to think small.

How? As an ecologist in Southern California, Amanda Schochet studied how bumblebees interacted with “habitat fragments,” small patches of native plants thriving in barren landscapes. Taken together, these fragments made up a vast network of resources, helping bumblebees adapt to environmental change. This gave Schochet an idea: to create “social habitat fragments” for humans in order to cultivate stronger communities and solve our own problems. Thus, the MICRO museum was born: tiny, dense information hubs that can be installed anywhere, from hospital lobbies to libraries, helping people in underprivileged spaces connect and grow. Schochet offers four tips for designing your own micro-solution: zoom in to see how systems interact; look for resources gaps; collaborate with other habitat fragments; and transform your fragment. By building tiny pockets of opportunity, we can knit together community networks that are resilient and expansive.

Quote of the talk: “There are habitat fragments everywhere: passionate individuals and groups of all sizes building toward a system with more equal access … One by one, together, we are filling gaps, strengthening systems that we all depend on.”

By studying oxylipin — a chemical “language” spoken by both phytoplankton in the ocean and the immune cells in our bodies — we can gain a deeper understanding of the planet and ourselves, says oceanographer Bethanie Edwards. She speaks at TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Bethanie Edwards, oceanographer

Big idea: By studying oxylipin — a chemical “language” spoken by both phytoplankton in the ocean and the immune cells in our bodies — we can gain a deeper understanding of the planet and ourselves.

How? Chemicals speak several “dialects,” such as those spoken by hormones, pheromones and toxins. Oxylipin is another such dialect, spoken when fatty acids break down. In the ocean, phytoplankton cells that speak oxylipin have powerful effects on their predators — warding off hungry mouths or even causing devastating mutations in their offspring. Amazingly, cells in the human immune system speak oxylipin, too — communicating with each other to recognize bacteria and heal infected areas. By continuing to investigate how this language works, Edwards hopes we can gain new insight into how our bodies heal.

Quote: “We can think about oxylipins like death cries — they are the last words of phytoplankton.”

Karin Öberg, space chemist

Big idea: The chemical cocktail for a living planet is simple — just add water! (and hydrogen cyanide) — and now easier than ever to identify from light-years away.  

How? Rather than looking for these molecules in planets that already exist, it’s better practice to observe the material before it becomes one, explains Öberg. With the help of ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter and sub-millimeter Array), a telescope comprised of 66 satellite dishes working in unison, Öberg searches for and identifies hotbeds of molecular activity where planets eventually form. By mapping these intergalactically fertile locations, it may be possible to pinpoint life-sustaining planets like Earth.

Fun fact: Hydrogen cyanide, while an extremely deadly poison, is also a fundamental ingredient for newly forming planets.

“Within the next couple years, some astronomer somewhere will find a faint point of light slowly moving across the sky and triumphantly announce the discovery of a new — and quite possibly, not the last — real planet of our solar system,” says planetary astronomer Mike Brown. He speaks at TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Mike Brown, planetary astronomer

Big idea: There’s an unknown planet in our solar system — and we’re on the verge of finding it.

How? Our telescopes aren’t powerful enough to identify unknown objects in the far reaches of our solar system, but they are powerful enough to track the rings of icy bodies that orbit known planets. Mike Brown and his research group discovered one such icy body, called Sedna, in 2004 — it was the most distant known object in the solar system at the time. By studying Sedna’s unusual, elongated orbit, Brown and his team deduced the existence of a distant, unknown, giant planet, which they’re calling Planet 9. At six times the mass of Earth, Planet 9 would become the fifth largest in the entire solar system. It could take years to identify Planet 9’s location with our telescopes, but Brown thinks it’s already hiding in the data. Now, he’s combing through old data for unrecognized images that may show a faint, moving planet — and finally give us a glimpse of Planet 9.

Quote of the talk: “Within the next couple years, some astronomer somewhere will find a faint point of light slowly moving across the sky and triumphantly announce the discovery of a new — and quite possibly, not the last — real planet of our solar system.”

SPHERES, a live VR experience created by writer/director Eliza McNitt

Big idea: For millennia, humans have been drawn to worlds beyond our own. Could cutting-edge VR technology help us translate the invisible waves coming from deep space into sights and sounds we can actually perceive?

How: Performed by Eliza McNitt with Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (soundtrack artists of Stranger Things), SPHERES blends 360-degree video with live sound (and the voices of Jessica Chastain, Millie Bobby Brown and Patti Smith) to map the unseeable mysteries of interstellar space — from the songs of black holes to the whistles of comets. 

Quote of the performance: “Space is not silent: in fact, it’s full of sounds.”

Kelsey Johnson, astronomer

Big Idea: Light pollution is a serious threat for virtually all species, including humans. Kelsey Johnson has a plan for preserving the dark night sky.

Why? Have you ever laid on your back at night, staring up at the star-studded sky? That experience is at risk of disappearing, says Kelsey Johnson. The threat comes from light pollution, or excessive artificial light at night time, which creates a “smog of light” and cloaks our view of space. This affects species in a range of ways: for instance, dog whelks — a type of sea snail — are almost twice as likely to hang out below the water level with a predator in the presence of artificial light. Our own health is at risk, too, Johnson says: by disrupting our circadian rhythms, we may be at a greater risk of breast cancer and obesity. So what can we do? Johnson lays out a series of steps you can take every day: limit your light usage (or don’t use any at all, if you don’t need it); keep light pointed away from the sky; choose warm lights, when possible; and speak up, advocating for the wellbeing of your window to the galaxy, both in your community and on a federal level.

Quote of the talk: If you have never seen a truly dark night sky, I want you to go out and experience one for yourself because, if you don’t, you don’t know what you’re missing and what humanity is losing.”

Risa Wechsler, physicist, dark matter researcher

Big idea: Dark matter is the most mysterious and massive feature of our universe — and we’re just starting to learn about it. 

How? Everything we see can with telescopes — galaxies, planets, stars, dust, gas, us — makes up 15 percent of the total mass of the universe. The other 85 percent is dark matter — which doesn’t emit or absorb light, and can’t be seen with eyes or detected with radio waves. The only reason we know it exists is because we can detect its influence on stars and galaxies. So what exactly is dark matter, and what does it have to do with our existence? Risa Wechsler and teams of physicists are getting creative to figure that out, creating model universes in computers to see what life would look like in the absence of dark matter; building detectors deep underground to try to catch a trace of its passage; and smashing particles together to try and make it in the lab. We’re still far from understanding dark matter, Wechsler says, but studying it could unlock a whole new understanding of physics and our place in the universe.

Fun fact: Dark matter is probably on your body right now. It doesn’t bump into you — it goes right through you.

“Think about how something works, then take it apart to test it. Manipulate something and prove some physical principle to yourself. Put the human back in the technology. You’ll be surprised at the connections you make,” says experimentalist Nadya Mason. She speaks at TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Nadya Mason, experimentalist

Big Idea: By doing hands-on experiments that help us better understand how our everyday devices work, we can reconnect to the physical world.

How? Our everyday devices are shrouded in mystery — most of us don’t know how a touchscreen works, and few of us are compelled to find out. Nadya Mason thinks that we lose understanding and connection to the world when we don’t try to figure out how things work. Experimenting is intuitive to us: babies learn about the world by interacting with it. At some point, though, we’re taught to simply accept the information given to us — but by experimenting, we can rediscover that instinct of curiosity. Hands-on experimentation and testing allows us to use our senses to learn, encouraging us to make new connections and discoveries, Mason says. The research backs this up: hands-on learning improves retention, understanding and well-being. By pursuing that tingle of curiosity and experimenting, we can demystify our surroundings, regain agency over our devices — and have fun.   

Quote of the talk: Think about how something works, then take it apart to test it. Manipulate something and prove some physical principle to yourself. Put the human back in the technology. You’ll be surprised at the connections you make.”

Molly Webster, sex chromosome editor

Big Idea: It’s time to let go of the belief that the X and Y chromosomes define biological sex as a binary — and start celebrating the nuances of science and the diversity of our bodies.

How? While the X and Y chromosomes do determine some part of biological sex, the genes they carry have many other functions, says Molly Webster. For instance, only four percent of the nearly 1,100 genes on the X chromosome have to do with sex determination. The simplistic definition of the X and Y chromosomes misrepresents the actual science of what they do in our bodies, an impact that can ripple across society and pave the way for discrimination. In major sports and in the justice system, for example, people have used these ideas to justify mistreatment against people who have different chromosome orders. Webster calls for us to make room for more inclusive and informed science by incorporating a broader understanding of the X and Y chromosomes in our classrooms and research labs.

Quote of the talk: “We’re at this point where we’re thinking: How do we want to teach science? How do we want to fund science? Who do we want to be as a society? Shouldn’t we allow ourselves to think about the X and Y chromosomes a little more broadly … and if we do, what insights would we gain?”

“When we truly understand exactly how the mind comes from the brain, we will improve the lives of everyone who will have a mental illness in their lifetime … as well as everyone else with whom they share the world,” says neuroscientist Kay Tye. She speaks at TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Kay Tye, neuroscientist

Big idea: It’s common knowledge that physical processes within the brain determine our state of mind: depression, anxiety and a host of other conditions are fundamentally linked to brain activity. Studying the link between the brain and the mind (or emotions) could help uncover effective treatments for mental disorders at their source.

How: By studying neural pathways, Kay Tye is shedding light on how neurons give rise to mental states. Her lab discovered that a region called the amygdala represents a “fork in the road” determining negative or positive emotional outcomes — and as their research continues, they’re identifying regions linked to overeating, anxiety and other negative behaviors. Tye believes that treatments targeting specific neural circuits could lead to a mental health revolution.

Quote of the talk: “When we truly understand exactly how the mind comes from the brain, we will improve the lives of everyone who will have a mental illness in their lifetime … as well as everyone else with whom they share the world.”

Angelicque White, biological oceanographer

Big idea: Angelicque White studies the base of the Pacific Ocean’s food web: microbes. This “forest of the sea” is composed of the most important organisms on the planet, whose health is directly linked to the health of the oceans.

How: Ocean microbes provide food for many of the ocean’s larger inhabitants and are a crucial barometer of marine chemistry. Rising marine temperatures are throwing this microbial ecosystem out of balance, leading to toxic algal blooms that ruin shellfish harvests and impact the lives of fish and marine mammals. By tracking the composition of our oceans over time, White and her colleagues hope to understand both marine health and how we might rejuvenate it.

Quote of the talk: “I personally believe that sustained observation of our oceans and our planet is the moral imperative for our generation of scientists. We are bearing witness to the changes that are being inflicted upon our natural communities, and by doing so, it provides us the opportunity to adapt and enact global change — if we’re willing.”

“How do you save one special, weird species from going extinct?” asks science journalist Victoria Gill. “You find people who know all about this animal, and you ask them, and you listen to them.” She speaks at TED@NAS at The National Academy of Sciences on November 1, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ryan Lash / TED)

Victoria Gill, science journalist

Big idea: Science alone can’t save the world. To make big breakthroughs, we also need collaboration between scientists and local experts.

How? To save the axolotl — an exotic (and adorable) salamander found in the freshwater lakes of Mexico — scientists teamed up with the people who know this wonderfully weird amphibian best: the Sisters of the Immaculate Health. For centuries, these nuns have concocted a special axolotl medicine, gathering crucial information and building up wisdom about this rare species. Gill reminds us that unusual collaboration between traditional scientists and knowledgeable locals often results in a deeper, fuller understanding of our ecosystems and the creatures that live in them — leading to more successful solutions for all.

Quote: “How do you save one special, weird species from going extinct? … You find people who know all about this animal, and you ask them, and you listen to them.”

Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz, astrophysicist, stellar storyteller (and certified stellar mortician)

Big idea: We are all — fundamentally, universally, atomically — connected.

How? We’re connected by the birth, death and rebirth of stars: the iron in your blood, the oxygen you breathe and the silicon in your phone relies on the interstellar life cycle, Enrico Ramirez-Ruiz says. Atomic-grade supernovas transform lighter elements (hydrogen and helium, for example) into heavier ones (like iron) — one of the most important being oxygen. This continuous elemental recycle explains everything from the Big Bang to the air we breathe, inextricably intertwining cosmic and human history. Essentially, we are life forms evolved to inhale the waste products of plants but also supernova explosions — which means it’s technically accurate to say that you’ve shared oxygen molecules with the world’s greatest minds.

Quote of the talk: “Our atoms participated in an epic odyssey with time-spans from billions of years to mere centuries — all leading to you.”


Announcing TED Masterclass: TED’s official public speaking course

We’re excited to announce the release of TED Masterclass — TED’s official public speaking course. Delivered via mobile app, the course is guided by TED’s Head Curator, Chris Anderson, and is designed to help you identify, develop and share your best ideas as a TED-style talk.

Based on Anderson’s book TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, the TED Masterclass app features 11 animated lessons that break down the techniques that speakers use to present their ideas from TED’s main stage. The lessons are taught using vivid animations, handpicked clips from celebrated TED Talks and exclusive insights from TED’s speaker coaches.

Developed by TED-Ed, the new app teaches people how to connect with an audience, explain complex ideas and give more persuasive presentations. The app also features a library of full-length TED Talks, including talks from Brené Brown, Bryan Stevenson, Susan Cain and many other TED speakers. Each talk featured in the app exemplifies and reinforces concepts introduced within the course.

You can complete the course at your own pace and can revisit each lesson as future public speaking opportunities arise. The app is free to download from both the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, and full access to the course is available as an in-app purchase.


The TED Interview podcast kicks off season 3

The TED Interview launches its newest season on October 9, 2019. Last season notably featured Bill Gates, Monica Lewinsky and Susan Cain — and you can expect another thoughtful lineup of scientists, thinkers and artists for the new season.

Season 3 features eight episodes, during which head of TED Chris Anderson will continue to inspire curiosity with in-depth conversations on our consciousness, the ways we navigate community and the power of embracing paradox.

During Season 3, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert expands on his TED Talk concerning the science of happiness; Turkish-British author Elif Shafak deconstructs storytelling and global community; and Michael Tubbs, one of the world’s youngest mayors, makes a case for universal basic income.

Listen to the first episode with happiness expert Dan Gilbert on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

With a diverse lineup of global thought leaders, TED’s podcasts are downloaded in more than 190 countries (nearly every place on Earth!). “Just like the ideas we explore, The TED Interview continues to grow with even more thoughtful and challenging conversations this season,” says Chris Anderson. “We’ve hit our stride and will be delving deeper into the minds of some of TED’s most remarkable speakers.”

More speakers will be unveiled throughout the season, and you can listen to them on The TED Interview for free on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. New hour-long episodes air every Wednesday. 

TED’s content programming extends beyond its signature TED Talk format with six original podcasts. In August 2019, TED was ranked among Podtrac’s Top 10 Publishers in the US.

The TED Interview is proudly sponsored by Lexus, whose passion for brave design, imaginative technology and exhilarating performance enables the luxury lifestyle brand to create amazing experiences for its customers.


Helping learners of English find their own voice

Transportation Teahouse at Huangjueping Street in Chongqing, China. (Photo: National Geographic Learning – Life as Lived)

Since its inception, TED has been zealous in its mission of spreading ideas that inspire. It was out of this passion that a partnership between National Geographic Learning emerged to create materials for the English language learning classroom — and help English learners to find their own voice.

National Geographic Learning’s goal is to bring the world to the classroom and the classroom to life. They create English programs that are inspiring, real and relevant. Students learn about their world by experiencing it through the stories, ideas, photography and video of both National Geographic and TED.

The language learning classroom is meant to be a safe place where learners can make mistakes and build confidence before going out into the world. But it can also be a place where learners can struggle to see a connection between the real world and the language they’re learning.

National Geographic Learning believes that if we want learners to understand the value of learning English — a language that connects them to the world — then we need to bring the real world into the classroom and show them the opportunity learning a language brings. The teaching and learning programs created by National Geographic Learning with TED Talks give learners of English (and their teachers) a way to talk about ideas that are relevant to them and help them develop a voice of their own in English.

This partnership has resulted in five textbook programs for the English language learning classroom so far. National Geographic Learning and TED have also collaborated to create a unique classroom supplement, Learn English with TED Talks — a language learning app with a difference.

For more information about all of the English language learning materials made with TED Talks please visit ELTNGL.com/TED.

Happy learning!


The terrifying now of big data and surveillance: A conversation with Jennifer Granick

Jennifer Granick speaking at TEDxStandford.

Concerns are growing around privacy and government surveillance in today’s hyper-connected world. Technology is smarter and faster than ever — and so are government strategies for listening in. As a lawyer for the ACLU, Jennifer Granick (TED Talk: How the US government spies on people who protest — including you) works to demystify the murky legal landscape of privacy civil rights, protecting our freedom of privacy against government and private interests. We spoke with her about the battle against government surveillance, how you can keep your data safe and why legal transparency — and legal action — is vital. 

In your talk at TEDxStanford, you detail some of the history and methods of government surveillance in the United States. Can you elaborate on how these methods have evolved as technology has advanced?

As Supreme Court Justice John Roberts put it, it’s the difference between “a ride on horseback [and] a flight to the moon.” The amount of information that’s available about us is exponentially more; the ease of accessing it and analyzing it, because of big data tools, storage and machine searching, is categorically different. At the same time, the laws that are intended to protect our privacy have been downgraded repeatedly, most recently in the name of the War on Terror. Everything is bigger; there’s just so much more out there.

In your talk, you mentioned that Section 702 of the FISA amendments (which allows US government agencies to surveil “foreign terrorist threats”) expired in 2017. What kind of impact will that have on the landscape of surveillance?

There was a long political battle about 702 and trying to amend it. What ended up happening is that Congress just reauthorized it, and passed it as part of a larger bill with no real reform. The movement to try to do something about it utterly failed. What it means is that right now, with more confidence than ever before, the intelligence community and [its] agencies can gather information in the name of targeting foreigners and store all of that information. So, they can search through conversations we’re having with people overseas. The news that’s happened since then shows that there are still mistakes and problems with the way these intelligence agencies are handling the information, and that they’re regularly breaking the rules. There was a recent story about the FBI violating the 702 rules. There’s no accountability to comply with the law; weak as it is, it’s basically not a concern.

What role do tech companies like Amazon and Facebook play in perpetuating these surveillance efforts?

Companies don’t want to comply with a whole bunch of legal processes, but when they do, they want it to be clear what they’re supposed to do, and they don’t want any liability for it. The companies have had some comments about wanting to restrain government surveillance to legitimate purposes to reassure their non-American users, and they’ve pushed for some sort of clarity and regularity in how surveillance is going to happen. They came out in favor of a more controlled exercise of 702, but no real reform. They also supported the Cloud Act which is a recent law that basically enables foreign governments to access information stored here in the US without meeting the higher standard of US legal process. They’re not consistently civil libertarians or privacy advocates.


If you care about any political issue — whether it’s tax reform or Black Lives Matter — we need to ensure these people can operate freely in the political world.


Facial recognition technology like Amazon’s “Rekognition” is being used by law enforcement across the country. What are the concerns and possible consequences around the use of this technology? 

Face identification connected to surveillance cameras is particular dystopian, but the ACLU of Northern California’s test of Rekognition shows that even the more pedestrian uses of the technology are dangerous. In tests, the software incorrectly identified 28 members of Congress as people who have been arrested for a crime and disproportionately flagged members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The problem is both that the tool is inaccurate and discriminatory, and also that it gives unprecedented power to police.

In an always-connected world with smart tech in our homes, cars and  pockets, how can we prepare for and avoid intrusive surveillance? 

Number one: use encryption. Encrypting your data is getting easier and easier, and there are communications services out there that protect your communications. iMessage is one for iPhone users. There’s WhatsApp, too. I use Signal, which is a text messaging program. Encrypting your data is easier and easier. For many of us, one of the biggest challenges isn’t necessarily the government — it’s hackers, too, so always turn on multi-factor authentication. This is so that it’s not like somebody can bust into your account with a password; they will also need to have some other kind of hardware token. That’s a good thing to do, and it’s actually very little additional work.


This idea that you can be manipulated into seeing, believing, buying and thinking things that aren’t what you normally would do — and nobody knows about it because nobody knows what I see is different from what you see — is scary.


Don’t use technology that doesn’t need to be connected to the internet. If you don’t need that internet-connected baby thermometer, don’t buy it. It’s going to send your data to some company, and that company is going to sell it to marketers, and it’ll be a source of access for law enforcement. In particular, I don’t like those home assistants like the Alexa or Google Home because I think that eventually, those machines can be used to eavesdrop on people. Why would we invite a ready-made surveillance device into our home?

Everybody likes new, fun stuff — I know lots of people who have those in-home assistants. I have a cell phone, I love the internet and I use Facebook. I think one of the things people really should do is push for better laws. That’s what the law is there for. It’s supposed to protect us and allow us to participate in the modern economy.

At the end of your talk, you close by saying we need to demand transparency. What does transparency mean to you, and how we can reach it?

There’s so much we don’t know about surveillance right now. In the criminal context, we don’t know how many particular surveillance orders are issued. We don’t know what kind of information they’re getting with them. We don’t know what they’re forcing companies to do. We don’t know if they’re potentially subverting security measures in order to facilitate spying on us. It’s much worse in the intelligence context where we have this FISA court that operates and issues opinions behind closed doors. They’re supposed to be publishing these opinions, but we very rarely see them. Any new and novel interpretations of law are meant to be published, but ever since that edict went into law, we haven’t had any FISA court opinions declassified. We find out way after the fact about things, like the FBI’s most recent violation of Section 702 rules, which meant agents had access to data and information they weren’t supposed to see. We find out about these problems years later. There’s just so much that we don’t know. 

Transparency is the first step, but it’s not an end unto itself. There’s a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and that board has only recently confirmed members, and now there’s a quorum again. For a long time, that oversight board, which is expected to provide some narrow review of intelligence programs, wasn’t even in operation. We’re behind. Only a few senators and representatives care because the population isn’t coming forward and saying, “This is really important to us.” But they should be. 

There’s no more obvious reason why you should care about surveillance than the Trump administration. In the past, people who have been blasé about surveillance had an assumption that if you weren’t doing anything wrong then you didn’t have anything to worry about — police would follow the rule of law, and everybody was operating with good faith. But today, you have the extremity of the immigration situation; today, you have the way that the Trump administration is punishing people who are coming to this country by kidnapping their children. There’s rampant sexism and anti-Semitism and racism, and this idea that people are “Black identity extremists” who should be surveilled — which just means the government is surveilling civil rights activists and communities of color. And so there’s this situation where this immense amount of technical power is in the hands of people who are operating in bad faith, based on the most base of motives.

What does it mean that all this information has been gathered and can be accessed, manipulated and sold? And how do you speak to those who aren’t concerned and believe they have nothing to hide?

There’s two things. One is that everybody has committed crimes. The amount of behavior that’s covered by criminal laws is huge — whether it’s smoking pot or lying on your taxes, there’s just so many ways that you can transgress the law. Nobody is 100 percent clean. If somebody wanted to go after you and they knew everything about you, there would be ample information to do that. It’s not just criminal stuff; it’s foolish things you’ve said in the past or people you were friends with who turned out to be crooked. There’s all kinds of things that can be used to tarnish your reputation with your employer or your friends or your spouse. 

The second thing I tell people is that it’s not about you. You may be of no interest, but there are people out there who are challenging the status quo, and these people stick out in order to try to make change. And the powers that be don’t necessarily want change. They like the way things are because they’re the ones in control. So if you care about any political issue — whether it’s tax reform or Black Lives Matter — we need to ensure these people can operate freely in the political world. The ability to do that is greatly reduced if someone has to be afraid that the police are going to come after their undocumented relatives. People need to be concerned about information gathering on the private side because that’s one of the main avenues that information gets to law enforcement. There’s so much incentive on the private side to collect it. That incentive is based on the advertising model: the more that companies know about us, the more targeted the advertising can be and the more money they make. 


The real thing to start worrying about is what we’re seeing in China, where they’re using face-surveillance to identify people, follow them out on the street and assign them a social score.


Once you have that much information, people can be manipulated against their best interest. [Social media] sites are designed to be addictive, and in order to keep people clicking, they keep showing you more and more outrageous stuff. This totally skews your sense of the world and skews your facts so you don’t know what’s actually going on in the world. It makes you associate only with like-minded people and puts you into this filter bubble. This idea that you can be manipulated into seeing, believing, buying and thinking things that aren’t what you normally would do — and nobody knows about it because nobody knows that what I see is different from what you see — is scary.

Once you have that data, there’s sociological or systemic problems, because there are certain decisions made based on that data about things, like who’s going to qualify for welfare benefits, what housing ads are shown to me based on my race, what job listings are shown to me based on my gender. These are other kinds of ways in which data can instantiate prejudice or discrimination. It’s not like there wasn’t prejudice or discrimination before big data — the fear is that it’s less obvious that it’s happening, and that makes it much more powerful.

What does the future of surveillance and privacy look like? Is something like Google’s Smart City neighborhood in Toronto going to be the norm?

I think that’s one possible outcome — that not just our communications data but data about our bodies, homes, relationships, shopping and more will be collected and will interact with each other far more than they are now. I think that’s definitely a trend. The real thing to start worrying about is what we’re seeing in China, where they’re using face-surveillance to identify people, follow them out on the street and assign them a social score, which is made up of factors like their law-abidingness, their job and their financials. This score that apparently dictates whether or not they’re good citizens follows them everywhere, enabling government and private entities to discriminate and make decisions about these people based on their rankings. That’s a really terrifying situation to have people be labeled and treated accordingly. That’s very Brave New World.