The politics of technological progress

Digital transformation must be accompanied by strong regulation to protect privacy and civil liberties.

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Across the world, Covid-19 is accelerating the pace of technological change. We are using technologies to adapt to the world in ways many thought unimaginable just a few months ago. Previously niche ideas, such as virtual classrooms and GP surgeries, have now become the mainstream. Last year, just 5.1 per cent of people worked from home. Now most of us are doing it. And did anyone predict the establishment of a virtual parliament in 2020?

For as long as I can remember, I have advocated for the technological transformation of our private and public sectors. Britain has suffered a productivity problem for more than a decade: high employment rates and high number of working hours, but stagnant output and pay. The solution to wealth creation and wage growth, in my view, is the rapid technological transformation of how we do business. In the public sector, too, with increasing demand and increasing costs, the route to improved service delivery and better cost efficiencies lies in the digitisation and personalisation of how services are delivered to service users. 

We have started to see some of those benefits during the coronavirus lockdown. For workers without the dreaded commute, the start of the day is a more positive experience, no doubt helping increase the quality and speed of output. GPs are able to reach more patients per day using online or telephone appointments than at the local surgery. Replacing international travel with video conferencing brings savings to our carbon output and travel budgets.

These things are never perfect, however, which is why the state has an important role to play. Whether it’s the inequality that comes from lower-income families or rural communities not having adequate online access, or ill health not getting picked up by GPs due to a lack of patients self-referring. For workers who are unable to work from home, and for those of us concerned about the accumulation of wealth and power at the top of the technology market, it is vital that the state understands the gaps and fills them with the public policy measures that deliver the values-based outcomes the British people expect. 

But what is “the state”? Yes, central and local government plays a crucial role in delivery. But parliament, the courts and civil society have a crucial role to play too. It is important not just to recognise the limitations of executive power in delivering everything that we want, but also to recognise the constitutional importance of institutional oversight, debate and accountability, which secures the best possible outcomes. 

During this pandemic, it has been great to see technology adoption increase so quickly. But with parliament not at full speed (albeit in digital hybrid), our courts in a jam and civil society facing new challenges in adverse circumstances, it’s all too easy for new technology-enabled ways of working to become mainstream without proper thought.

Let’s take two examples: Covid-19 tracing apps, and the use of facial recognition technologies. At the Institute of AI – a global, not-for-profit network for legislators interested in the regulation of artificial intelligence, which I chair – we have been tracking how different countries have approached the use of tracing apps. In China, Alipay and WeChat have been integrated into the government’s tracing app, giving access to contacts, financial transaction data and device location. Access to certain areas is only permitted with the immunity passport provided by the state. In South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, age, gender, location and financial data is tracked by the minute using emergency legislation implemented during previous pandemics. We cannot simply copy-and-paste this approach in Europe. 

That is why we are looking at this issue on the Science and Technology Select Committee. The development, roll-out and retirement of these apps must take place within an appropriate legal and ethical framework. For this technology to work for us, appropriate checkpoints and sunset clauses are needed to prevent wider-spread use in the future.

In facial recognition technology – a tool that can, in theory, increase the efficiency and effectiveness of policing by scanning large crowds and matching individuals with target lists held by the police – the role of the wider state is vital once again. 

Yes, the technology is remarkable and developing at a significant pace. 

But some of the images held by the police are stored unlawfully, according to a 2012 High Court ruling, due to the Home Office’s technical inability to delete the images of unconvicted citizens automatically. While new technologies develop at speed, old technology – in this instance legacy servers – cause wider policy problems. One solution, to build new facial image databases by scraping social media images, is clearly not a solution acceptable to the public or to parliament. These issues, as well as the equality issues that arise from discriminatory training data-sets due to higher arrest rates amongst the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, require an active state and benefit from an empowered civil society.

However, it is unsustainable to rely on parliament or the courts to set and enforce these rules alone. While technology moves fast, primary legislation does not. That is why regulators are crucial in updating the rules and avoiding an overloaded court system. But forensics and biometric data regulators are not, in my view, given sufficient powers or resources to do their increasingly important work properly. And that is why, in my private member’s bill on forensics and biometrics, I am calling on the government to strengthen the regulation of these policy areas.

These challenges are not just related to the pandemic, and it is positive that we are seeing citizens, businesses and organisations embrace the benefits of technology. But in moving fast, we must remember that we do not want to break things on the way. All of us, whether we are in government, the courts, regulatory bodies or civil society, have a role to play.

Darren Jones MP is a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee.

This article originally appeared in the New Statesman's Spotlight report on cyber security in May 2020. Click here for the full report.

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