Channing Lee studies International Politics at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She can be found on Twitter @channingclee. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Tension Between Privacy and Innovation
Date Originally Written: April 1, 2022.
Date Originally Published: April 11, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a student of international politics.
Summary: Given the importance of data to emerging technologies, future innovation may be dependent upon personal data access and a new relationship with privacy. To fully unleash the potential of technological innovation, societies that traditionally prize individual privacy may need to reevaluate their attitudes toward data collection in order to remain globally competitive.
Text: The U.S. may be positioning itself to lag behind other nations that are more willing to collect and use personal data to drive Artificial Intelligence (AI) advancement and innovation. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the idea of conducting contact tracing to assess virus exposure through personal devices sounded alarm bells across the United States. However, that was not the first time technologies were engaged in personal data collection. Beyond the pandemic, the accumulation of personal data has already unlocked enhanced experiences with technology—empowering user devices to better accommodate personal preferences. As technology continues to advance, communities around the world will need to decide which ideals of personal privacy take precedence over innovation.
Some experts like Kai-Fu Lee argue that the collection of personal data may actually be the key that unlocks the future potential of technology, especially in the context of AI. AI is already being integrated into nearly all industries, from healthcare to digital payments to driverless automobiles and more. AI works by training algorithms on existing data, but it can only succeed if such data is available. In Sweden, for example, data has enabled the creation of “Smart Grid Gotland,” which tracks electricity consumption according to wind energy supply fluctuations and reduces household energy costs. Such integration of technology with urban planning, otherwise known as “smart cities,” has become a popular aspiration of governments across the globe to make their cities safer and more efficient. However, these projects also require massive amounts of data.
Indeed, data is already the driving force behind many research problems and innovations, though not without concerns. For example, AI is being used to improve cancer screening in cervical and prostate cancer, and AI might be the human invention that eventually leads scientists to discover a cancer cure. Researchers like Dr. Fei Sha from the University of Southern California are working to apply big data and algorithmic models to “generate life-saving biomedical research outcomes.” But if patients deny access to their healthcare histories and other information, researchers will not have the adequate data to uncover more effective methods of treatment. Similarly, AI will likely be the technology that streamlines the advancement of digital payments, detecting fraudulent transactions and approving loan applications at a quicker speed. Yet, if people resist data collection, the algorithms cannot reach their full potential. As these examples demonstrate, “big data” can unlock the next chapter of human advances, but privacy concerns stand in the way.
Different societies use different approaches to deal with and respond to questions of data and privacy. In Western communities, individuals demonstrate strong opposition to the collection of their personal information by private sector actors, believing collection to be a breach of their personal privacy privileges. The European Union’s (EU) General Data Protection Regulation and its newly introduced Digital Services Act, Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, and California’s Consumer Privacy Act curb the non-consensual collection of personal information by businesses, thereby empowering individuals to take ownership of their data. Recently, big tech companies such as Meta and Google have come under public scrutiny for collecting personal data, and polls reveal that Americans are increasingly distrustful of popular social media apps such as Facebook and Instagram.
Still, the American public is not as guarded as it may appear. Video-focused social media app TikTok, whose parent company Bytedance is based in China, reported more than 100 million daily U.S. users in August 2020, up 800% since January 2018. Despite warnings that the Shanghai-based company could potentially share personal data with Beijing, including threats by the Trump administration to “ban TikTok” for national security reasons, nearly a third of Americans continue to use the application on a daily basis, seemingly ignoring privacy concerns. While lawmakers have attempted to regulate the collection of data by large corporations, especially foreign companies, public opinion appears mixed.
Norms in the Eastern hemisphere tell a different story. Privacy laws exist, such as China’s Personal Information Protection Law and Japan’s upcoming Amended Act on Protection of Personal Information, but the culture surrounding them is completely distinct, particularly when it comes to government collection of personal data. At the height of the pandemic, South Korea introduced a robust contact tracing campaign that relied on large databases constructed by data from credit card transactions. Taiwan succeed in contact tracing efforts by launching an electronic security monitoring system that tracks isolating individuals’ locations through their cell phones. In China, almost everything can be achieved through a single app, WeChat, which allows users to post pictures, order food, message friends, hire babysitters, hail a cab, pay for groceries, and more. This technological integration, which has transformed Chinese society, works because enough personal information is stored and linked together in the application.
Some may argue that not all the data being collected by governments and even corporations has been neither voluntary nor consensual, which is why collection discussions require legal frameworks regarding privacy. Nevertheless, governments that emphasize the collective good over personal privacy have fostered societies where people possess less paranoia about companies utilizing their information and enjoy more technological progress. Despite aforementioned privacy concerns, WeChat topped more than one billion users by the end of 2021, including overseas users.
Regardless of a nation’s approach to technological innovation, one thing must be made clear: privacy concerns are real and cannot be diminished. In fact, personal privacy as a principle forms the foundation of liberal democratic citizenship, and infringements upon privacy threaten such societal fabrics. Law enforcement, for example, are more actively optimizing emerging technologies such as facial recognition and surveillance methods to monitor protests and collect individual location data. These trends have the potential to compromise civil liberties, in addition to the injustices that arise from data biases.
Yet there is also no doubt that the direction global privacy laws are headed may potentially stifle innovation, especially because developing technologies such as AI requires large quantities of data.
The U.S. will soon need to reevaluate the way it conceives of privacy as it relates to innovation. If the U.S. follows the EU’s footsteps and tightens its grip on the act of data collection, rather than the technology behind the data collection, it might be setting itself up for failure, or at least falling behind. If the U.S. wants to continue leading the world in technological advancement, it may pursue policies that allow technology to flourish without discounting personal protections. The U.S. can, for example, simultaneously implement strident safeguards against government or corporate misuse of personal data and invest in the next generation of technological innovation. The U.S. has options, but these options require viewing big data as a friend, not a foe.
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