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Is it Efficiency vs. Democracy in the name of #Coronavirus?

Published on April 1, 2020 here : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/efficiency-vs-democracy-name-coronavirus-virginie-martins-de-nobrega/

Thoughts based on some articles from Business Insider, including: Edward Snowden says COVID-19 could give governments invasive new data-collection powers that could last long after the pandemic by Isobel Asher Hamilton and Edward Snowden says big tech firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook have business models that are tantamount to ‘abuse’ by Charlie WOOD.

More and more articles are raising questions around the reflective process that would reappear after the peak of the #Coronavirus crisis when it comes to the vision we have for the Society lead by the 4th revolution of A.I and frontier technologies.

The fact is that despite the legitimate prioritization of medical urgencies and the treatment of every single patients, or population at risk, those questions should also be a priority for us, engaged citizens, and for governments when it comes to decide on exceptional measures during exceptional times. The sad truth is that those questions should have remained the mainstream conversation over the last ten years. They should also been the drivers for our regulations, legislative instruments, and most importantly the strategic positioning of our states and international organizations.  

Freedom and fundamental freedoms have a cost.

We need to pay the proper price to protect and adapt our democracies to the new technologies.

New technologies should not be the one deciding for our future nor some corporations or individuals. It is a collective debate. The common threat of the #Coronavirus pushes us to think big again to ambitiously meet the core political and legal principles of the Universal declaration of human rights, the United Nations Charter and every major Constitutions. We need to go back to the Spirit of those texts and ask ourselves: what are our collective ambitions for the Society 5.0 ?  

Those texts and the major institutions built after WWII might seem imperfect. But what has been imperfect is the use we made of those systems, which were perverted for economic gains and personal interests, only. Economic gain is part of a liberal economy. Personal interests is part of being human and willing to grow, learn and win. What is not productive is when those interests counterbalance and take the lead on the common interest. This balance has long been broken.

The same balance of interests is at stake today.

Again, there is no questioning that those particular and exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. However, that what they should be ‘exceptional measures’ – not the Pandora box to a constant screening of your every move, total access of your data (health condition, bank accounts, social security number…). This excessive centralization of data coupled with A.I’s applications (e.g. predictive analytics) could led to a constant and legalized control of citizens, and a data-centric tyranny.  In Europe, some specific contracts have already been signed between governments and telecom companies to use anonymous aggregated data to create virtual heat maps of people’s movements’ (Edward Snowden). What are the contractual conditions to the collect of those data? Will those data be destroyed after the crisis? Can those data be centralized by governments to have a full overview of your “Data profiling”? Shouldn’t we have an option to opt-out with the proof that all data have been destroyed?

The ethical and legal problems around the collect of data have also been underlined by Edward Snowden in those terms:

‘People are quite frequently mad at the right people for the wrong reasons (…). Yes, these people are engaged in abuse, particularly when you look at Google; at Amazon; at Facebook (…). Their business model is abuse. And yet every bit of it, they argue, is legal.

Whether we’re talking about Facebook or the NSA that is the problem. That’s the real problem. We have legalized the abuse of the person, or the personal. We have entrenched a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged (…)

I think the mistake it makes is actually in the name. ‘General Data Protection Regulation’ misplaces the problem. The problem isn’t data protection — the problem is data collection

(…) Regulating the protection of data presumes that the collection of data in the first place was proper; that it was appropriate; that it doesn’t represent a threat or a danger; that it’s okay to spy on everybody all the time, whether they’re customers or whether they’re citizens, so long as it never leaks; (…) I would say not only is that incorrect — it’s that, if we’ve learnt anything from 2013, it’s that eventually, everything leaks’.

And therefore, as engaged citizens, what can we do?

  1. Be aware and decide what trade-offs we are willing to accept.
  2. Stop the easy shortcuts ‘I have nothing to hide’. It is not a question of hiding anything, but protecting and preserving our freedom and privacies.
  3. Constantly ask for opt-out options in any use of our data.
  4. When part of an A.I project implying collecting data, implement ab initio ethical guidelines addressing the redress mechanism to follow if an application ends up presenting ethical threats. Always question if we need to collect all sort of data.
  5. Accept that not anything need to be explained by data nor store. There is no democracy without the acceptance of a certain level of risk. A risk zero society does not exist, even under a tyranny.  

It does not seem much at an individual level or a project level, but it is a start. And if you think that someone cannot have a domino effect, look at what Edward Snowden did.

Virginie MARTINS de NOBREGA

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