The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Dan Keyserling, chief operating officer at Jigsaw, a technology incubator within Google’s parent organization, Alphabet. Jigsaw develops technology to address global security challenges, such as online censorship, cyberattacks, extremism, and online harassment. Keyserling discussed how technology can empower users, protect elections, and foster safer online spaces.
This interview has been edited.
Chelsea Han: Jigsaw provides technologies to support free expression and access to information. Can you give an example of a project that has had a significant impact?
Dan Keyserling: Jigsaw is at forefront of defending news organizations for cyberattacks in countries without the freedom of expression. Attacking news organizations, especially small and medium-sized publishers in countries that do not support independent journalism, is a common form of censorship around the world. Project Shield offers free protection to news organizations and human rights groups against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
Jigsaw empowers people with tools to access to the free Internet. Outline helps people to create virtual private network (VPN) as a protection against censorship and surveillance. VPN is a common tool that millions of people use every day to access the open Internet.
Intra safeguards individuals from domain name system (DNS) manipulation attacks. DNS poisoning occurs when an entity intercepts your connection with the DNS, a phonebook of the Internet that translates domain names to IP addresses. It is possible for governments to block certain websites from being accessible by intercepting the connection to DNS. We witnessed this in Venezuela. We created a tool that is dead simple to use.
Han: How does Jigsaw prioritize which area of global security challenges to tackle first?
Keyserling: We try to forecast threats that are one to three years in the future. We understand the role of technology and identify the opportunities to address geopolitical challenges. The mission of using technology to make the world safer can be broad. We have chosen to focus on a certain set of problems where emerging technologies are at the core of the issue. For example, disinformation is an emerging issue in a technology space where many organizations are thinking about ways to detect and address disinformation on their platforms.
We have observed that cyber threats increase in intensity and frequency around elections around the world. When there is an election, there is an increased risk of cyberattacks, proliferation of disinformation, and restrictions to access the Internet. Protect Your Election is a suite of free tools available to political organizations to defend against attacks on the Internet, such as phishing, hacking, and DDoS attacks. We have embarked on training in countries like Ukraine, Venezuela, and Kenya. We helped political parties to understand how Protect Your Election can be used to make individuals and campaigns safer against cyber threats. Political campaigns around the world are increasingly acknowledging how important these tools can be in addressing cyber threats.
Han: Which global security challenges can technology have the greatest impact on?
Keyserling: Part of Jigsaw’s mission is to better understand how technology may play a role in resolving an issue. We scrutinize how technology may be a meaningful force in addressing geopolitical dilemmas. There are global security challenges where technology may be tangential. But there are many other issues where technology is at the heart of the matter. For example, terrorism is a complicated problem. We have chosen to focus on the role of technology in a recruiting process for violent extremist organizations through the Redirect Method. We studied how extremist groups recruit online and use the Internet to reach a potential audience. We conducted experiments to intervene in the recruitment process. Jigsaw adds value by applying technology to thwart the recruitment of extremists.
Han: Those engaging in some of the worst online behaviors, such as recruiting extremists and posting toxic comments, try to avoid technological countermeasures. How can platforms leverage technology to address these risks more proactively rather than on a reactive basis?
Keyserling: We created Perspective that uses machine learning to spot abuse and toxicity in language. Publishers and platforms use this technology to moderate conversations on their sites. The New York Times used it to expand the number of articles that offer comments for users. Perspective helps human moderators to review comments more efficiently.
There is a common issue across the Internet where publishers are shutting down the comment section altogether. The challenge of moderating comments at a scale can be difficult. Machine learning has enabled platforms to re-open comment sections. Perspective enabled spaces where people can exchange ideas and engage with each other.
Han: Which global security challenges are the hardest ones to address with today’s tools? What do you think might be possible in a few years?
Keyserling: It depends on how you approach global security challenges, and what standards you are using to evaluate. The nature of our work is that we never finish. There are always new issues that evolve over time. Just as issues and challenges change, our approaches should adapt as well.