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Bob Schukai, digital privacy expert

Zoe Stojanovic-Hill asks Robert Schukai to look into the future

It must be strange for someone like Bob, a tech expert working in digital identity, to be talking to someone like me, a self-proclaimed grandma, who will probably be made redundant for lack of tech skills before she even enters the workforce.

Robert Schukai, 50-something, is the Global Head of Design, Digital Identity Solutions for Thomson Reuters. He’s a thin man with wavy, grey hair that he often wears in a ponytail. He has flown into Sydney from Atlanta, Georgia, and we’re sitting in Reuters’ Pyrmont office, overlooking the sunlit harbour. His Atlanta-based team have designed digital ID software and he is in Australia to introduce the software to the big banks and the federal government. At this stage, they are just testing the market.

It must be strange for him, but Bob is patient with my questions, which may or may not have been written whilst watching Westworld.

“I got off Facebook eleven years ago,” he says, with a trace of a Southern accent. “I had content I thought was in private mode, and then Facebook suddenly changed their terms and conditions and I wasn’t aware of it, and then it was public. At that point, I was done.”

Our society is currently prioritising convenience over privacy, he continues. Take the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica controversy, for instance. Bob agrees with the general consensus that Facebook was wrong to share users’ data without their consent; that much is a given. But he also believes that we, the mass of users, were wrong to trust Facebook with so much data. We overshared, and are still oversharing, because using Facebook is convenient. The way Bob sees it, digital identity would eliminate the tension between convenience and privacy.

 

Bob’s ‘first computer’ actually belonged to the local RadioShack, an electronics store in St. Louis, Missouri, where he grew up.

“The RadioShack TRS 80. We used to call it the Trash 80.”

A chunky model launched in 1977, with a screen that seems to have sunk into the monitor, judging by pictures on the internet. (I googled it after we spoke).

“Here’s what you’d do,” Bob says, reflecting on when he was thirteen. “You’d go up to the local RadioShack store and you’d go on their computer and you’d go:

10

PRINT

RADIOSHACK SUCKS

20

GO TO 10

…so then you’d hit ‘20’ and what would it do, it would print ‘RadioShack sucks’ all the way down the screen, and you’d leg it out of the store…This is what counted as humour in 1980-something.”

Bob’s dad was an engineer who worked for the electricity company Union Eletric, and his mum was a nurse who became a stay-at-home mum. Bob describes himself as a “smart but also problematic” kid—curious, and mischievous.

“We’d build our own rockets and launch these things, and we thought it’d be fun to immerse them in petrol or gasoline…light them on fire and shoot them up,” he recalls.

He studied electrical engineering at college, and worked on NASA’s Cassini Mission early on in his career.

It was an exciting time in tech, when digital signal processing was just taking off. “The book was being written on a lot of stuff we were doing…Out in California, we were consuming [books] right off the press and then turning them into products we were building.”

Many of Bob’s colleagues were rocket scientists—literally—and, at times, Bob found it intimidating to work with such accomplished co-workers. “Some of these guys who have worked in the space business, I’m a nothing compared to them,” he reflects, modestly. “Someone could spend 26, 27 years of their life tied to a single mission.”

Bob probably could have stayed on the Cassini Mission too, until the probe crashed into Saturn last year. But he left and traversed the tech world. Since then, he has worked in blockchain and biometrics, in artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2014, he was awarded an MBE for contributing to education and to the start-up community in the UK, whilst working with UK Trade and Investment.

“I like working on stuff when there is no path, when you don’t know what the answer is,” he says. “Once the path kind of gets defined, I want to move on.”

 

Digital identity is a simple idea, Bob begins, and falls into a familiar rhythm. At the moment, we have a “sledgehammer approach” to identity—we give away more information than is necessary and that data drifts around, unsecured, on the internet. It’s overkill, and should be replaced with “selective attribute disclosure”—only revealing what you need to reveal.

A digital ID would be a digital profile of yourself, which you can access on your phone, based on four facets of your identity: physical biometrics, like the physical attributes used in facial recognition; government-issued proxies, like your passport; online proxies, like your social media presence; and behavioural biometrics, which can include anything from your typical transactions, based on your transaction history, to how you type on your phone, based on keystroke dynamics.

In a Reuters blog post, Bob envisions a future in which “smart cities” provide residents with streamlined services. He praises Estonia, perhaps the most famous example of digitising the bureaucracy. Estonia is known as an ‘e-state’ because citizens have digital identity cards, which allow them to access public, medical, financial, and other services by connecting to one digital platform. “They will also have the ability to redesign and improve services by capturing significantly more data about a city’s inhabitants and their behaviours,” he writes in the post.

For digital identity to work, you have to trust the state to store your data—arguably, more data than it has ever had access to before, including data derived from behavioural analytics. Suffice to say, such a proposition raises a number of privacy issue in and of itself. Bob is more worried about paternalistic ‘guidance’ than classic track-your-movements surveillance.

“Are the government going to install some surveillance state—no…If anything, where I think the ‘surveillance’ could come in probably has to do more with the way in which people could be ‘compensated’ in a new economy, and what they may or may not be allowed to do with the compensation that they receive.”

For instance, he’s wary of universal basic income as a solution to imminent joblessness, in the wake of widespread automation, partly because he is skeptical about whether UBI would actually be unconditional.

“I don’t know what the answer is to it,” he sighs, and mentions the end of Finland’s UBI experiment. In January 2017, Finland’s conservative, austerity-inclined government started paying a random sample of 2000 citizens, aged 25-58, €560 ($895.95AUD) a month, to see if basic income could spark Finland’s economy. The program has been criticised for being a poor intimation of the UBI ideal: for one thing, it was only paid to the unemployed, rather than being paid to every citizen. The government recently announced that the experiment will not be extended into 2019.

Bob adds, “Certainly, something has to change in the separation between the very rich and the very poor…I think there is going to have to be an evolution away from the hardcore capitalism that exists today. It just can’t be all me, me, me and how much money can I take with me to my grave.”

 

Reminders of the present—his body and the earth—help Bob forecast the future. He’s a marathon runner, and he has dreamt up a lot of the ideas behind Reuters’ intellectual property while running.

I got into running for a while, although I never came close to running a marathon, and I think that running can put you inside and out of your body at the same time. A part of your mind is keenly aware of your muscles, sweat and breath, but as the thoughts flow through you, you drift into a meditative state. Bob is Catholic, and sometimes he constructs his running mantra out of prayers.

When I called Bob a week later, to ask a few follow-up questions, he’d just been for a run around Washington DC.

“You start off the run, and you’re running down the hill and on the left side is Arlington Cemetery…” he described the scene for me, over Skype.

“So I continue on, I’m running across the bridge, and now I’m in DC proper, and there’s this monument that’s over by the Korean war memorial…and there’s this big marble slab and it says, ‘Freedom is not free’. Running makes you think, and it reminds you of how lucky you are to actually be doing that. Because there’s someone over there who’s six feet underground who isn’t getting to do what you are doing right now… It’s a humbling thing.”