Progress and data protection – two sides of the same coin

Published: 3 November 2022

This blog was written by our Commissioner, Emma Martins, and first appeared in Business Brief on 1 November 2022.

Would you drive a car without any safety features? So why do we accept so few checks and balances on technological developments? The Bailiwick’s Data Protection Commissioner Emma Martins explores why data protection and innovation must evolve together.

Innovate means a new idea, method or thing – or the introduction of something new. It comes from the Latin word ‘novus’ meaning new. Innovation is mostly seen as a desirable thing, synonymous with success and progress.
If you observe where innovation has featured in the news recently, it is often around things such as energy, cars, healthcare, science.

Innovation is of course intrinsically wrapped up with technology. Whether that’s conversations about AI, the Metaverse, autonomous vehicles, big data etc. Many technologies involve or impact personal data in some way, either directly or indirectly - AI decision making is based on vast data sets, the Metaverse promises to use data about ‘visitors’ to ‘tailor’ and ‘personalise’ their experiences. These new technologies function perfectly well, but if we want to build them in a way that treats human beings with dignity and autonomy (rather than users to be exploited for profit) then all the data about human beings needs to be protected in line with relevant legislation.

This invariably takes time and can often bring frustrations around perceived slowing of progress. But why has slowing things down become such a problem for technology when it hasn’t for other areas? It is worth reflecting on that for a moment. As Stephen Covey said:

Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things.

Would you want your new car to have been built without effective safety features? Would you want cutting-edge medical treatment administered to you without rigorous safety testing first?
Why then are we so relaxed about rolling out other technologies without such checks?

I think there are several reasons. In part it is down to the speed of progress. We have had very little time to embed human culture and values into some technologies and they have taken on a life of their own – often morphing into something completely different to the original objective. Remember that Facebook was originally a form of ‘hot or not’ game for students at Harvard. The World Wide Web was originally conceived as simply a document management system. Consider where those things are now and consider how rapidly those dramatic departures from their original concept happened.

Technological development has also, historically, often only had technologists in the room. The equivalent, for cars for example, would be for engineers to have free rein to build the fastest car possible without having to factor in input from the safety team. Bringing that safety team in once the car is built and on the roads is going to be too late. They need to be in the room from day one.

We are starting to learn from our mistakes and increasingly see non-technical disciplines involved in technological innovations. That is real progress but we must ensure the momentum is maintained. Let’s start to reframe our conversations to ask what technology and innovation SHOULD be doing, rather than just what it CAN be doing. It is a small but important difference.

For it to be a good thing, innovation should deliver on objectives we have determined have value and that value us. Taking time to make sure that is happening should be seen as essential, not problematic.