Garry Kasparov takes on the Russian surveillance state (Q&A)
PRAGUE—Garry Kasparov is known as a chess grandmaster, but his political and human rights activism against Russian leader Vladimir Putin has earned him a second life.
The youngest-ever world champion of chess, who spent 225 weeks out of 228 as the top-ranked chess player across the globe, has refocused his life from competitive chess to being a rake at the Kremlin door. He felt strongly enough about opposing President Vladimir Putin that he led the political party trying to unseat him in 2005. Kasparov ran against Putin in Russia’s 2008 elections but claimed that political opposition derailed his campaign and stifled public support.
Since then, Kasparov turned his attention to human rights issues, decrying corruption in the professional chess world and in Putin’s Russia. In 2012, he became chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which he still leads. He blames Putin for the murder of his friend Boris Nemtsov, the Russian political opposition leader shot and killed near the Kremlin on February 27.
A few weeks later, Kasparov testified about Putin’s policies in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. And in October, he published his 15th book, Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, which demanded that world leaders stop the Putin administration’s aggressions in Russia, Crimea, Syria, and elsewhere.
Kasparov sat down with The Parallax during a visit to Prague, Czech Republic, to discuss his political activism, things the tech security and privacy world can learn from his experiences in the chess trenches, and encryption apps he uses to talk to other Russian political activists.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: More than most people, you’ve experienced artificial intelligence, as you’ve played chess against some of the world’s most advanced computers. Are you afraid of modern AI? Should we be?
A: I’m not afraid of anything that constitutes progress. I played some of the first matches with machines in the 1980s. They were incredible even back then. It’s up to us to actually find a way to use their immense power. Fearing progress is counterintuitive. I believe that chess can offer a unique opportunity to actually study how the human mind and the force of intuition can be combined with the brute force of calculation.
It strikes me that the tech security and privacy world faces adversaries not unlike those you’ve faced in life: Adaptive, clever, hard to defeat. What can the tech security and privacy world learn from your experiences?
With the dramatic growth of data availability, with billions of devices that can ship it, and with our lives getting more computerized and digitalized, you’d expect that a good number of people would like to take advantage of that. Hacking data is a crime that can be compared to other crimes against property. These are certain things that we have to accept as inevitable, but without giving up.
We have hackers or state-controlled institutions that just intrude on our privacy, collecting data without our consent. In the modern world, we have to also recognize that there’s a balance between state protection of our security and state collection of our personal data.
How to balance these things? It’s quite a challenge. It’s one of the things that will be asked of politicians in the elections to come.
You’ve been a vocal advocate in Russia and elsewhere for democracy. What role does security and privacy technology play in promoting democratic values?
In chess, we have fixed rules and unpredictable results. In Putin’s Russia, it’s the exact opposite. The role that the tech industry plays in defending freedom and advancing human rights was heavily underestimated by its captains. They always saw business opportunities in countries like China. This led to an agreement, or a concession, to limit the access of the population to information in exchange for some business privileges.
The moment you have the NSA—and similar institutions in Europe—going after the data, it’s a disaster. The moment you have big corporations making concessions to China or Russia, delivering the data into the hands of these dictatorships, it’s called business interests.
So while a lot of people could be upset with security institutions in the United States or Europe having access to their data, it’s not about just access; it’s about what they can do with it. And of course, the free world provides many more levels of protection for individuals, even if the state could somehow look into our personal lives.
Do you communicate with political dissidents in Russia?
I do. There’s a network of Russian dissidents and political activists. Very few are left in Russia, especially since the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. It’s impossible to have open political activities there.
What kind of computer security and privacy tools do you use?
We know that if you use Skype, it’s only as secure as using standard telephone lines. We believe that Russian security forces have access. So we use Wickr or Silent Phone. If you’re talking about sensitive information, you have to talk to people who live outside of Russia.
My experience tells me that when dealing with such massive hacking institutions as the KGB or the Chinese, you have to be aware that basically any tools of communication you use, one way or another, they will find a way to go through it.
My advice is to use a variety of these means. But eventually, the old-fashioned landline—we will change this thing.