Data and Technology Have No Moral Compass: But that does not mean that we get to abdicate all responsibility.
I do not consider myself an idealist and I would not call myself naive. That being said, as Terence and I engaged in research for our book, Privacy and Big Data, there were moments when I threw up my hands and said, “Really?” Certainly, the recent spate of articles on surveillance technologies and how governments around the world are buying and using those technologies to, for want of a better term, spy on its citizens gave me pause.
Don’t get me wrong—I know these technologies exist. I am also very aware that the regulatory environment does not really address what devices or applications built on top of these technologies can do. The reality is that companies like Datong sell “intelligence solutions” to the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies around the world. Recently, an article in the Guardian revealed that:
“Britain’s largest police force is operating covert surveillance technology that can masquerade as a mobile phone network, transmitting a signal that allows authorities to shut off phones remotely, intercept communications and gather data about thousands of users in a targeted area… The surveillance system has been procured by the Metropolitan police from Leeds-based company Datong plc, which counts the US Secret Service, the Ministry of Defence and regimes in the Middle East among its customers. Strictly classified under government protocol as “Listed X”, it can emit a signal over an area of up to an estimated 10 sq km, forcing hundreds of mobile phones per minute to release their unique IMSI and IMEI identity codes, which can be used to track a person’s movements in real time.”
When you have some time, I encourage you to read the entire article as it covers the rise of surveillance devices and technologies used around the world as well as the current legal and regulatory environment (not much). Did you know that there is a conference called Intelligence Support Systems (ISS World) where governments from around the world gather to discuss surveillance technology? As the Guardian points out in another article:
“Behind the cloak of secrecy at the ISS World conference, tips are shared about the latest advanced “lawful interception” methods used to spy on citizens – computer hacking, covert bugging and GPS tracking. Smartphones, email, instant message services and free chat services such as Skype have revolutionised communication. This has been matched by the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.”
This, too, is no surprise to me as a marketer (every market needs at least one or two major conferences to drive interest and of course, sales). I bet you’re wondering what made me pause? Well, it is simply this: these tools, like many others, can be used for good and ill but I’ve never read an article where one of the tool suppliers was so blasé about his responsibility when it comes to the “ill side of the equation.” Far be it for me to put words in the mouth of Jerry Lucas, the president of TeleStrategies (the company behind ISS World) but his meaning cannot be misconstrued in this direct quote from the article:
Jerry Lucas, the president of the company behind ISS World, TeleStrategies, does not deny surveillance developers that attend his conference supply to repressive regimes. In fact, he is adamant that the manufacturers of surveillance technology, such as Gamma International, SS8 and Hacking Team, should be allowed to sell to whoever they want… ‘The surveillance that we display in our conferences, and discuss how to use, is available to any country in the world,’ he said. ‘Do some countries use this technology to suppress political statements? Yes, I would say that’s probably fair to say. But who are the vendors to say that the technology is not being used for good as well as for what you would consider not so good?’… Would he be comfortable in the knowledge that regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea were purchasing this technology from western companies? ‘That’s just not my job to determine who’s a bad country and who’s a good country. That’s not our business, we’re not politicians … we’re a for-profit company. Our business is bringing governments together who want to buy this technology.”
Let me leave you with this thought: if we as an industry get to pat ourselves on the back for playing some small role in the Arab Spring, we ought to be kicking ourselves in the ass (yes, I said it) for ignoring the fact that other technologies can be used to do just the opposite. And those of us who make this stuff should not be allowed to abdicate all responsibility for its various uses around the world. While Mr. Lucas may be correct is asserting that it is not his “job” to determine good and bad countries, he and others like him do understand the implications of putting this technology in the wrong hands. For a different take on corporate responsibility, read Terence’s post on data privacy and anonymity—we (PatternBuilders) do not cede ethical issues for profit-at-any-cost.
Our data and the technologies and devices that we develop have no moral compass. This does not mean that we, as individuals and as companies, get to abdicate ours.