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Trust and Truth as Critical Infrastructure

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The recent Tallinn Digital Summit hosted a panel with the lengthy name: „A Trusted Connectivity Future for Ukraine: Frameworks of Resilience and Partnerships across Business, Media, Cyber, and Non-Profits” and with an impressive array of speakers. Most importantly, though, some profound and highly significant ideas were verbalised that go beyond the issues highlighted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I talked to Sten-Kristian Saluveer, CEO at Storytek Innovation and Venture Studio, and the organiser of this panel, about the challenges and responses that both the ongoing hot war and the digital war have brought upon us.

Mayhem in scale

One of the starting points of the panel was a sad observation that the Russian attack on Ukraine has created problems of immense scale. Two speakers exemplified the range of these problems from physical to digital. Kristen Davis represented Apopo, a company that trains animals that detect landmines. According to her, after the aggressors are pushed off Ukraine, there remains a task of cleaning the minefields on staggering 160 000 square kilometres. This is double the size of Estonia.

Another speaker was Anna Bulakh, a former research fellow at the NATO cyber defence centre and current Manager of Ethics and Partnerships at Respeech, a cutting-edge synthetic media company in Ukraine. She pointed to the scale of the digital warfare Russia is waging against the West, consisting not only of cyberattacks but also AI-supported disinformation campaigns, which are customised for different audiences, and supported by synthetic audio-video material. This is meant to disorient and discourage not only Ukrainians but all of the democratic countries.

Truth as the most valuable infrastructure

These two examples are not only comparable in scale. They both jeopardise the functioning of entire societies. While landmines make the use of physical infrastructure impossible, digital attacks are guided by pillars of democratic world order – truth and trust. According to Mr Saluveer, this was one of the key messages of the panel.

“We tend to take truth for granted and believe that truth will, eventually, prevail. But considering the possibilities of digital warfare, we must recognise that this inevitability is under threat. If we can’t protect the truth, we will lose trust in each other, and society essentially stops working. Truth is the most important infrastructure, and it must be protected,” said Mr Saluveer.

From help-packages to partnerships

The role of trust in enabling cooperation became evident in the proposed answers to the above-mentioned challenges. All speakers on the panel suggested that problems of this magnitude cannot be tackled by states or businesses alone but require a collaborative effort of various parties. States, big tech, start-ups and NGO-s all have their respective advantages. The challenge is to create cooperation networks between them in the context of information war, do it quickly, and do it so that their advantages will not be mitigated. When talking about Ukraine, then local enterprises should have a central role in these collaborations.

“We are all supporting Ukraine and should continue to do so. But we must realise that these people, NGOs and companies in Ukraine know best what to do and how to do it,” said Mr Saluveer. “Therefore, the best way to fight this war is to create partnerships with those who are on the front line.”

Ecosystems of trust

But how to create trusting relationships with companies geographically far removed and in a country at war? Usually, in collaboration, trust takes time to develop throughout years of cooperation. Today, we don’t have this luxury. According to Mr Saluveer, technology can help, for example, by invisible watermarking of videos, and cross-checking and referencing of sources and documents.

At the panel, Craig Forman, General Partner from NextNews Ventures, gave a good example of this in the realm of journalism by Kyiv Independent, an English-language media outlet based in Ukraine. After the monstrosities performed by the Russian army in Bucha, the truthfulness of information about them was systematically undermined by the Russian info-war. Kyiv Independent made metadata of their sources and photos, along with GIS-tagging, available for reporting and verifying. According to Mr Forman, this showcases the next stage of data gathering and distributing. Supported by data integrity software and cross-referencing, media outlets and newsrooms can work together to protect the integrity of reporting and thus protect the truth.

Human-centric cognitive resilience

But eventually, it is the people at the centre of these ecosystems, as Guy-Philippe Goldstein, Strategic Advisor at Expon Capital, said at the panel. On the one hand, we should trust people on the ground, but at the same time, we should think of the creation of cognitive resilience in our societies. The first task of these ecosystems is to connect people and expand the trust networks between them.

The panellists are reportedly working on a playbook for cooperation between start-ups like Respeech and conglomerates like Microsoft. While the details of these guidelines are yet to be seen, these need to be decentralised, resilient and support the values they are protecting. Certainly, it is not the Big Brother of centralised surveillance and control. Still, the Little Brother model of state and private sector collaboration so effectively functioning in Estonia is the key to maintaining and creating ecosystems for the future.

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