Balancing Technological Advances and Data Privacy

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Sep 23, 2020
by Mira Merchant
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Balancing Technological Advances and Data Privacy

Salzburg Global Fellow Maria Farrell discusses using technology for social good and maintaining data privacy in an interconnected world Photo: Pexels

Technology and the future have always gone hand in hand. Humans are constantly innovating new ways to incorporate technology into our lives. A common theme in many idealized versions of the future is how technology can be used for social good.

This is one of the topics Salzburg Global Fellow Maria Farrell hopes to explore through her work. Farrell is a writer and speaker whose work focuses on technology policy and the future. For the past two decades, she has worked in Internet policy. Recently, she has worked with data policy, looking at ways to create legal frameworks and institutions that allow us to generate data commons and put data in service of all of us.

When considering technological advances, one cannot neglect the data privacy issues that accompany it. Often unknown to us, our technology collects scores of data from our personal lives. That much of the data is likely mundane is inconsequential.

Farrell notes that right now, because of the “slightly bizarre capitalistic setup” we have, corporations often use data for their own interests, such as how best to market a product. She is interested in using data for public good, particularly to solve complex generational issues like poverty, injustice, and inequality. She says, “Data is not a privatized commodity to be extracted from people unexploited… It is actually something that belongs to us, not just individually but collectively, and can be used for a collective good.”

She also hopes to ensure that when we use data, we aren’t using it in a way that harms people, or encroaches on their privacy. Unfortunately, she says, “That is absolutely what's happening right now.”

The issue of data privacy has been further exacerbated by the advent of smart cities, which Farrell started writing about several years ago. Farrell is based in the UK, which is the democracy – if not the country – with the highest number of closed-circuit television cameras.

Farrell says, “A smart city basically just says, ‘Hey, let's have more of that.’ And not just cameras, but let's put sensors in everything and let's monitor people and let's add it to facial recognition. And again, it's partly the fact of doing that, which creates public spaces that are total surveillance, panoptic homes.”

Farrell notes two particular problems with smart cities, the first being that there is no way to opt-out of having your data collected. She says, “You can't opt-out of Trafalgar Square, you can't opt-out of buying food. So… the whole opt-out regime, it just doesn't work.”

The second problem, according to Farrell, is that smart cities are often built with public-private contracts. She claims the companies behind these contracts “are a long way away down a chain from any kind of public accountability and are [working on] smart cities basically because they're an incredible opportunity to vacuum up vast amounts of data.”

“So, again, what looks like a public good actually turns out to be a really highly privatized commodities space that not only surveillance people, but does it in a way that concentrates profit elsewhere.”

Nevertheless, Farrell remains optimistic about the future of data and its potential as an agent for social change. “Despite all evidence to the contrary, I am optimistic that we are at an inflection point, certainly in Europe, where we are starting to put together the ideas and the institutions and the political coalitions we're going to need to wrest data from the hands of big tech, and put it to the service of societies more broadly… There are so many people working on this. I think they're going to make it happen.”