Hello Governments – We Need Your Strong Public Voice on Tech Efficacy

I’m always struggling with when/what deserves an answer or amplification in the news when things are written about the use of data or technology to address issues of public good or public service. I’ve been reading a lot about this lately in relation to the coronavirus, but this morning I was surprised to get a jolt of it in the weekly newsletter from Sidewalk Labs, which you can subscribe to here.

When data and technology can help us in our efforts to stay safe and healthy, there is clearly a responsibility to engage in discussing our options. This work is ongoing in the realm of public health.  As many have said, however, the power vested in governments to apply rules in emergency situations makes it harder to have those conversations properly because of the urgency. Pandemics also cause a lot of fear to be running through our lives on a daily basis. This context is not great for policy thinking and public engagement.

In this context, I want to raise a quick point about the newsletter I received this morning from Sidewalk Labs.  Read this paragraph from their newsletter and take note of how it frames the issue of data use in the pandemic context:

“Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. government was in talks with tech companies to use smartphone location data as a way to keep Americans safer from transmission and infection during the coronavirus outbreak. With trust in both the federal government and tech companies at a low, the idea faces some serious hurdles.

But, as Sara Morrison reports, privacy advocates say that it is, in fact, possible to collect such epidemiological data in a privacy-preserving way — as long as privacy and accountability are ensured from the start. (Recode) If that’s the case, it’s indeed worth exploring at full speed given the urgency of the crisis. Governments and companies alike have an opportunity to use data that could save lives — and to instill new faith that when data is used responsibly and protected properly, it can be a powerful force for the greater good.”

Also from the Recode piece, but not excerpted: “Neither the US government nor Google responded to Recode’s request for comment.”

Trust. Privacy. And now Accountability

Note that this is not a framing about efficacy. What does this data collection and use actually do? The framing jumps right to privacy advocates and privacy preservation. Efficacy is a slippery slope on its own, because even when the data does support improvements, the attendant trade-offs of granting increased surveillant powers demand careful discussion. These trade-off issues are raised in the Recode piece. But they’re not the part excerpted for this newsletter.

That data “could save lives”/”can be a powerful force” …those are very different stories than “does save lives”/”is a powerful force”.  In the absence of strong public science voices,  stories start to be told and take hold. The magic that technology will deliver is always just around the corner, just need more and more and more data or x or y.  Or that the data issue is one of trust. Or privacy. These narratives are both compelling and complex and partially right, but they aren’t the whole story. Selective omissions matter.  For these reasons, we the public need strong public science leadership right now. And we the public, as has been the case on the data governance file for the last few years, aren’t getting it.

The real sleight of narrative hand that caught my eye this morning was Sidewalk Labs identifying itself as part of this whole conversation by asking what “our” data could do in a crisis. The newsletter subject line opened with: “Could our data slow Covid-19?”  As though it was just like us, part of us, the public. This is such a slippery piece to keep track of, but it’s not of zero impact.

Thank you to everyone continuing to do the work to raise these issues and level the conversation so we at least have a shot at having the right ones. From there we can also talk about public tech with public oversight versus commercial/governmental interplay in these areas. Technological sovereignty is an option and can be a reality if it’s a path we want to invest in. The government’s track record in terms of driving data collection and use is its own story, this is not a naive assertion that overlooks its past and current instincts, but at least there we have formal mechanisms for oversight and accountability.

Sidewalk Labs is but one of thousands of companies stepping into this narrative void and mixing marketing with crisis. This note is not an effort to malign the intent. But as we know, good intentions do not always lead us to the best places. Without the fuller picture of this conversation, which is also about masks and hospital beds and tests, the creep of techno-solutionism continues along very slowly over time.  The fault and pressure resides with governments and public science to step up and step in to frame this conversation properly. I’m not encouraged but it doesn’t mean we should stop asking.

“White copy – black” by Rui Miguel Félix is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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