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Data trusts could secure our right to privacy

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Facebook, governments and other users of big data have created privacy concerns (image by Anthony Quintano via Wikimedia Commons)

Data trusts could help to restore the balance between privacy and effective governance, writes Paul Budde.

I RECENTLY followed a webinar session organised by the University of Queensland on the factory of the future. Smart or not, the future will still need factories to make the stuff we humans use every day. One of the questions that were discussed included: “how will existing production models cope with the staggering and ongoing rate of digital disruption and advanced capabilities?"

Very rapidly, the discussion went into the necessity of good quality data to quickly react to the transformative changes needed in this the case regarding manufacturing. COVID-19 was mentioned as perhaps one of the most disruptive events ever happening in our lifetime. The term "pivoting" was used here.

What this means is the companies will have to be able to rapidly react to changes and pivot their organisations to new opportunities and to address the challenges they face. Modern robots and AI software provide the technologies that can make this happen. But that depends on access to good quality data.

Two weeks ago, I wrote of the enormous changes in telehealth, expressing the hope that the Government will use its leadership to build on the enormous success of these services during the pandemic. They will only be able to do this if they gather, analyse and use the right data. But as we see with the COVID-19 app, people are very wary of providing their data, out of a fear that the government might misuse it. 

We are increasingly facing a key problem for the transformations that our economies and societies need and the use of data is critical in these processes. People have increasingly become more sceptical of what the industry calls "big data". We see both governments and the digital companies creating a surveillance state and people are resisting this.

At the same time, we see the massive increase in cyber warfare where foreign agents and criminals are providing fake or wrong data to influence politics, business and society with the aim to disrupt, create fear, uncertainty and doubt.

These bodies do get what they want as governments now go overboard with putting restrictions on the free flow of information that is needed to support a values-based, democratic society.

Data is caught in the middle of this. It has become the critical conduit to run our economies and societies, it is taking on the same role as oil and electricity, it is rapidly becoming a national utility.

To allow data to take up that role we do need to radically change the way data is gathered, analysed and used. This has led to the development of the concept of data trusts. This takes the concept of a legal trust and applies it to data.

As in a normal trust, the data trust holds something and the trustee makes decisions about its use. It is a legal structure that provides independent stewardship of data for the benefit of people, both in a social and in an economic sense. Data trusts are specifically very useful when sensitive data is involved.

It is important to see the incredibly fast-moving digital revolution that is unfolding before our eyes, not as a technology event but as an event in our human evolution. So, we do need both STEM and humanities involved in this process.

Ethics is increasingly becoming more and more important to guide the human face of this. For that reason, it is sad that the government has downgraded the role of humanities studies in our university system. Data trusts need to be seen in that context.

In the case for example of Covid-19, we could develop “data trusts for good”. This could be the most effective way to overcome the lack of sufficient data to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, without creating a surveillance state in the process.

Data trusts can inform COVID-19 recovery activities of all types and be used to train AI and algorithms in a way that ensures proprietary and personal data is protected and deleted after a certain point.

The Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center is one of the leading organisations working on policies and strategies aimed at balancing data privacy against utility within the bounds of the social contracts of liberal democracies. They acknowledge a need to establish a public trust that assists nations recovering from the pandemic.

They see COVID-19 as a key opportunity to launch such a concept. Developing a data trust that will assist nations recovering from the pandemic. If this framework could legislate accountability, be designed for privacy, and operate with transparency, it could provide the solutions needed to arrive at a "new normal".

The concept of data trusts would also be ideal for smart cities. Cities are facing the same issues with their data collection and an independent data trust, overseen by parties that include citizen representation, could greatly address the reluctance of people providing personal data for the common good.

Once we have some of these data trusts up and running we can learn from them and if successful we can use them to build up trust again with those government and commercial organisations who will put their data in such a trust.

As we are facing increasingly more complex problems there is no question about the fact that we need data, AI, machine learning and algorithms as tools to manage our cities, companies, countries and indeed our world. Rather than procrastinating and resisting the economic and social transformations that are needed, governments should take a leadership role and start working on solutions.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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