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Q&A with former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves

The Daily sat down with the former president of Estonia, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford (KEVIN HSU/The Stanford Daily).

Toomas Hendrik Ilves served as the fourth president of Estonia from 2006 until 2016. He previously served as the Estonian ambassador to the United States and Canada and later as a member of the European Parliament. This January, he came to Stanford as the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. The Daily sat down with Ilves to discuss what he has been researching at Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What made you want to go into academia after your time as president, and why did you decide to come to Stanford, specifically?

President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (THI): I’ve been in and out of academia ever since I was young… And of course, why Stanford? Well, Stanford is the one place [where] the three basic interests that I’ve had my whole life come together in a way that doesn’t happen anywhere else…

I’ve always had this interest toward foreign security policy. I remember starting to read about the Soviet Union when I was eight years old; I think I was reading my father’s New York Times. And then [there’s] the parallel interest that has been more broadly in democracy and what is democracy, why is it different, what are the foundations of democracy? That has been a very long-term interest. Especially once Estonia became independent again, it really became a practical issue.

And then a third thing, which is completely serendipitous but has affected me since I was a kid, which was that when I was 14, I had a math teacher who was doing her Ph.D. in math education at Teacher’s College at Columbia. She decided she’d teach us to program, so at 14, I learned how to program… And in fact in college I worked programming, so I made a little money on the side.

So especially after last year’s election year, or after the referendum in the U.K., all these three came together. What is electoral democracy these days? What’s the role of foreign countries, especially Russia in this? And of course, how does it work?

So they all came together because of the external sort of stimuli, but also this is the place. Who’s at FSI? Herb Lin is one of the great experts on cyber security. On democracy, I just walk downstairs and there’s Larry Diamond and Frank Fukuyama. And then there’s Mike McFaul on Russia. Plus all of the other people who are here, but it sort of all comes together here.

TSD: Can you talk through some of the things you’ve been working on since you got here in January?

THI: Electoral democracy has been practiced for 250 years, in some places longer, but it’s one of the three pillars of liberal democracy. There’s free and fair elections, then there’s rule of law … and then there is fundamental rights and freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of association. And what we see is that, thanks to digital technology, the first of those has been broadly compromised. Or at least it has cast enough doubt on it that people wonder whether there are free and fair elections. And where that also comes in is that some solutions to, say, maintaining free and fair elections and stopping fake news impinged upon the third pillar of liberal democracy, which are free expressions.

I identified … five attack vectors. The first thing is hacking, by which I mean going into someone else’s computer. And that’s basically espionage. That has happened before, but … other states are trying to figure out what is going on inside parties, and before I.T. this was much more difficult. Now, many countries probably have engaged in that.

Where this next step comes in is doxing, which is the second vector, which is actually using what you have managed to hack and selectively to publish embarrassing things about one candidate or one party, but not doing it to other parties. And I say parties because we saw in France this was applied to Macron, but there were a host of other candidates who didn’t suffer from this.

The third vector is fake news, which, again, is a very broad category. It’s an overused term. I would actually say false news, just to keep it out of the whole rhetorical blender that we see right now. But it can range from — as what happened with Macron — doxing, and then putting in fake or false emails in there to compromise a candidate, too. This is actually a big change from the way things were done — I mean on the part of people’s attitudes, especially the media. Because there was an earlier case of breaking in, but that was physical, that was 1972, Watergate. And I highly doubt whether … had they succeeded and stolen, say, the Democratic National Committee’s correspondence, whether or not any newspaper would have published them…. It wouldn’t have happened. Whereas we kind of have a different attitude towards if it’s stolen digitally. Then it’s kind of like, oh, it’s okay during the U.S. election that the media willingly, sort of [voyeuristically], gleefully published things that had been stolen, and only on one side.

And then, from there we get to … the instrumentalization of fake news, whether genuine stolen material or just made-up stuff through Twitter bots, which will, every five seconds, repeat over and over and send out in all directions stories that then quickly become trending. We’ve seen this a number of times… There’s this hashtag Syria hoax, which said that there was no sarin attack, which was then multiplied, multiplied, multiplied, multiplied by Twitter bots every five seconds sending these Tweets out and [which] soon rose to the top of the Twitter trending hashtags because it was simply mechanically, robotically manipulated. That’s a fourth vector, which is actually using I.T. to spread this, disseminate these in a big way.

And the last one… In both the referendum on membership in the European Union and very clearly in the case of the U.S. elections, the leave side and the Republican side made use of new technologies that give really granular, individual profiles of voters via algorithms… And algorithms then calculate an ad that you get on Facebook, and it’s called a black ad because no one else sees it, only you see it. And Facebook does not show these ads — you get highly personalized ads, based on data that has been either legally or illegally, we don’t know yet, vacuumed from various data brokers. Now that, I think, really begins to affect democratic free and fair elections.

So it’s a new world. And what I’m trying to do here is figure out what it all means…  And I testified before Congress twice on this, and this does seem to be a matter of concern.

TSD: I saw that you had some experience teaching in the past, so I was wondering if that was something that you would think about doing since you’re once again back at a university.

THI: Well, I don’t know. I keep giving lectures and talks, so, I mean, it’s all one thing, right? It’s just getting up in front of people and talking about it… That’s what I’ve been doing all these years, so it’s not different at all. The difference is, if you teach a course, you need to spread it out a little bit … But given the degree of ignorance about these issues, more broadly, then you have to spend a lot of time reviewing the basics. And I think this is a problem that we have.

There’s a wonderful essay published in 1959 by a physical chemist and literary novelist named C.P. Snow, called “The Two Cultures.” The reality he was describing is that he would sit at Cambridge … with the physicists and chemists and discuss quantum mechanics … and then he would go over to another table and drink with his buddies, the poets and the novelists and the Shakespeare scholars. The problem was, he said, he was the only one who could move between the two tables. And at neither table was there any interest in what was going on at the other table.

And so more broadly, people who come out of the liberal arts don’t have an understanding of science and technology, and the people in science and technology have very little experience with liberal arts and the traditions of a liberal democracy…. What [Snow] wrote the essay [about] was the problem of the university. He was arguing for a more universal education.

Now it’s a problem where geeks [are] designing things without really quite grasping what the implications are, whether it really does fit into the way we do things, and you have lawmakers who don’t have a clue, whose job it is to produce the laws that will regulate digital life. So that’s kind of a big problem I’d say these days.

TSD: I actually wanted to backtrack a little bit and talk about your background in general. I wanted you to talk a little bit more about how being the child of refugees — and also of refugees to America — affected your life as a politician and a leader, but also as a person.

THI: Migration is really a big issue in Europe, and my parents, they fled separately in this three-week interval between the Nazi occupation, where they shot you if [you] tried to escape, and the Soviet occupation, where they shot you if you tried to escape…. During that period, 70,000 people got into boats, made their way across the Baltic Sea to Sweden, and my parents and basically almost everybody who was in the West of Estonia made that trip or had been transported as slave labor in Germany, and then they had found themselves in Germany after the war…. That gives you a different perspective when you read all about these migrants coming across the Mediterranean.

I had the equivalent of a Joint Session of Congress speech: I addressed the whole [European] Parliament — I was the child of refugees. First of all, my parents weren’t always welcomed, but ultimately they sort of found their way and then they came here, and they became very good Americans, and they managed to put their two sons into, respectively, Columbia and Princeton, which is a pretty cool accomplishment for someone a couple years earlier fled two totalitarian regimes. So I would say you should take it easy on these people who are coming in. They in fact may end up being really important citizens in your country.

TSD: Is there anything you miss about Estonia now that you’re here or anything that you appreciate here in Silicon Valley?

THI: Well first of all, there’s a big change after being driven around with a security detail and not being allowed to drive to taking a bus or riding my bicycle to work, which I think is very cool…. What I miss is the functioning digital society. Estonia offers services, and people are dependent upon IT-based services that don’t exist in the United States. And I find the whole architecture here very rickety.

TSD: Is there anything you felt like we didn’t touch on that you wanted to add?

THI: If there’s anything I can offer to Stanford University, I would say you need two-factor authentication, but after the hacks on the phone system in Germany, go over to a chip card. Because you already have IDs… [Holding up his national ID card] This looks like a student ID. That’s my national ID. It just has a chip on it, and I plug it in, put in my code, and it’s very, very secure. You’re halfway there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Alexa Philippou

Alexa Philippou

Alexa Philippou '18 is a political science major and a former Managing Editor of The Daily's sports section. She switched from the sports section to news her junior year, where she has worked on the university/local beat since. Being from Baltimore, she is a die-hard Ravens and Orioles fan who cried when the Ravens won the Super Bowl. To contact Alexa, please email her at aphil723 'at' stanford.edu.