It’s complicated: what the public thinks about COVID-19 technologies

Imogen Parker at Ada Lovelace Institute: “…Tools of this societal importance need to be shaped by the public. Given the technicality and complexity, that means going beyond surface-level opinions captured through polling and focus groups and creating structures to deliberate with groups of informed citizens. That’s hard to do well, and at the pace needed to keep up with policy and technology, but difficult problems are the ones that most need to be solved.

To help bring much-needed public voices into this debate at pace, we have drawn out emergent themes from three recent in-depth public deliberation projects, that can bring insight to bear on the questions of health apps and public health identity systems.

While there are no green lights, red lines – or indeed silver bullets – there are important nuances and strongly held views about the conditions that COVID-19 technologies would need to meet. The report goes into detailed lessons from the public, and I would like to add to those by drawing out here aspects that are consistently under-addressed in discussions I’ve heard about these tools in technology and policy circles.

  1. Trust isn’t just about data or privacy. The technology must be effective – and be seen to be effective. Too often, debates about public acceptability lapse into flawed and tired arguments about privacy vs public health; or citizens’ trust in a technology being confused with reassurances about data protection or security frameworks against malicious actors. First and foremost people need to trust the technology works – they need to trust that it can solve a problem, that it won’t fail, and it can be relied on. The public discussion must be about the outcome of the technology – not just its function. This is particularly vital in the context of public health, which affects everyone in society.
  2. Any application linked to identity is seen as high-stakes. Identity matters and is complex – and there is anxiety about the creation of technological systems that put people in pre-defined boxes or establishes static categories as the primary mechanisms by which they are known, recognised and seen. Proportionality (while not expressed as such) runs deep in public consciousness and any intrusion will require justification, not simply a rallying call for people to do their duty.
  3. Tools must proactively protect against harm. Mechanisms for challenge or redress need to be built around the app – and indeed be seen as part of the technology. This means that legitimate fears that discrimination or prejudice will arise must be addressed head on, and lower uptake from potentially disadvantaged groups that may legitimately mistrust surveillance systems must be acknowledged and mitigated.
  4. Apps will be judged as part of the system they are embedded into. The whole system must be trustworthy, not just the app or technology – and that encompasses those who develop and deploy it and those who will use it out in the world. An app – however technically perfect – can still be misused by rogue employers, or mistrusted through fear of government overreach or scope creep.
  5. Tools are seen by the public as political and social. Technology developers need to understand that they are shifting the social-political fabric of society during a crisis, and potentially beyond. Tech cannot be decoupled or isolated from questions of the nature of the society it will shape – solidaristic or individualistic; divisive or inclusive….(More)”.

The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics

Paper by Amy Orben: “Widespread concerns about new technologies – whether they be novels, radios or smartphones – are repeatedly found throughout history. While past panics are often met with amusement today, current concerns routinely engender large research investments and policy debate. What we learn from studying past technological panics, however, is that these investments are often inefficient and ineffective. What causes technological panics to repeatedly reincarnate? And why does research routinely fail to address them?

To answer such questions, this article examines the network of political, population and academic factors driving the Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics. In this cycle, psychologists are encouraged to spend time investigating new technologies, and how they affect children and young people, to calm a worried population. Their endeavour is however rendered ineffective due to a lacking theoretical baseline; researchers cannot build on what has been learnt researching past technologies of concern. Thus academic study seemingly restarts for each new technology of interest, slowing down the policy interventions necessary to ensure technologies are benefitting society. This article highlights how the Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics stymies psychology’s positive role in steering technological change, and highlights the pervasive need for improved research and policy approaches to new technologies….(More)”.

Fear of a Black and Brown Internet: Policing Online Activism

Paper by Sahar F. Aziz and Khaled A. Beydoun: “Virtual surveillance is the modern extension of established policing models that tie dissident Muslim advocacy to terror suspicion and Black activism to political subversion. Countering Violent Extremism (“CVE”) and Black Identity Extremism (“BIE”) programs that specifically target Muslim and Black populations are shifting from on the ground to online.

Law enforcement exploits social media platforms — where activism and advocacy is robust — to monitor and crack down on activists. In short, the new policing is the old policing, but it is stealthily morphing and moving onto virtual platforms where activism is fluidly unfolding in real time. This Article examines how the law’s failure to keep up with technological advancements in social media poses serious risks to the ability of minority communities to mobilize against racial and religious injustice….(More)”.

Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design

Book by Dipayan Ghosh on “Designing a new digital social contact for our technological future…High technology presents a paradox. In just a few decades, it has transformed the world, making almost limitless quantities of information instantly available to billions of people and reshaping businesses, institutions, and even entire economies. But it also has come to rule our lives, addicting many of us to the march of megapixels across electronic screens both large and small.

Despite its undeniable value, technology is exacerbating deep social and political divisions in many societies. Elections influenced by fake news and unscrupulous hidden actors, the cyber-hacking of trusted national institutions, the vacuuming of private information by Silicon Valley behemoths, ongoing threats to vital infrastructure from terrorist groups and even foreign governments—all these concerns are now part of the daily news cycle and are certain to become increasingly serious into the future.

In this new world of endless technology, how can individuals, institutions, and governments harness its positive contributions while protecting each of us, no matter who or where we are?

In this book, a former Facebook public policy adviser who went on to assist President Obama in the White House offers practical ideas for using technology to create an open and accessible world that protects all consumers and civilians. As a computer scientist turned policymaker, Dipayan Ghosh answers the biggest questions about technology facing the world today. Proving clear and understandable explanations for complex issues, Terms of Disservice will guide industry leaders, policymakers, and the general public as we think about how we ensure that the Internet works for everyone, not just Silicon Valley….(More)”.

Technical Excellence and Scale

Cory Doctorow at EFF: “In America, we hope that businesses will grow by inventing amazing things that people love – rather than through deep-pocketed catch-and-kill programs in which every competitor is bought and tamed before it can grow to become a threat. We want vibrant, competitive, innovative markets where companies vie to create the best products. Growth solely through merger-and-acquisition helps create a world in which new firms compete to be bought up and absorbed into the dominant players, and customers who grow dissatisfied with a product or service and switch to a “rival” find that they’re still patronizing the same company—just another division.

To put it bluntly: we want companies that are good at making things as well as buying things.

This isn’t the whole story, though.

Small companies with successful products can become victims of their own success. As they are overwhelmed by eager new customers, they are strained beyond their technical and financial limits – for example, they may be unable to buy server hardware fast enough, and unable to lash that hardware together in efficient ways that let them scale up to meet demand.

When we look at the once small, once beloved companies that are now mere divisions of large, widely mistrusted ones—Instagram and Facebook; YouTube and Google; Skype and Microsoft; DarkSkies and Apple—we can’t help but notice that they are running at unimaginable scale, and moreover, they’re running incredibly well.

These services were once plagued with outages, buffering delays, overcapacity errors, slowdowns, and a host of other evils of scale. Today, they run so well that outages are newsworthy events.

There’s a reason for that: big tech companies are really good at being big. Whatever you think of Amazon, you can’t dispute that it gets a lot of parcels from A to B with remarkably few bobbles. Google’s search results arrive in milliseconds, Instagram photos load as fast as you can scroll them, and even Skype is far more reliable than in the pre-Microsoft days. These services have far more users than they ever did as independents, and yet, they are performing better than they did in those early days.

Can we really say that this is merely “buying things” and not also “making things?” Isn’t this innovation? Isn’t this technical accomplishment? It is. Does that mean big = innovative? It does not….(More)”.

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code

Book by Ruha Benjamin: “From everyday apps to complex algorithms, Ruha Benjamin cuts through tech-industry hype to understand how emerging technologies can reinforce White supremacy and deepen social inequity.

Benjamin argues that automation, far from being a sinister story of racist programmers scheming on the dark web, has the potential to hide, speed up, and deepen discrimination while appearing neutral and even benevolent when compared to the racism of a previous era. Presenting the concept of the “New Jim Code,” she shows how a range of discriminatory designs encode inequity by explicitly amplifying racial hierarchies; by ignoring but thereby replicating social divisions; or by aiming to fix racial bias but ultimately doing quite the opposite. Moreover, she makes a compelling case for race itself as a kind of technology, designed to stratify and sanctify social injustice in the architecture of everyday life.

This illuminating guide provides conceptual tools for decoding tech promises with sociologically informed skepticism. In doing so, it challenges us to question not only the technologies we are sold but also the ones we ourselves manufacture….(More)”.

Standards and Innovations in Information Technology and Communications

Book by Dina Šimunić and Ivica Pavić: “This book gives a thorough explanation of standardization, its processes, its life cycle, and its related organization on a national, regional and global level. The book provides readers with an insight in the interaction cycle between standardization organizations, government, industry, and consumers. The readers can gain a clear insight to standardization and innovation process, standards, and innovations life-cycle and the related organizations with all presented material in the field of information and communications technologies. The book introduces the reader to understand perpetual play of standards and innovation cycle, as the basis for the modern world.

  • Provides a thorough explanation of standardization and innovation in relation to communications engineering and information technology
  • Discusses the standardization and innovation processes and organizations on global, regional, and national levels
  • Interconnects standardization and innovation, showing the perpetual life-cycle that is the basis of technology progress…(More)”.

The Machine Pauses: Will our means continue to dictate our ends?

Essay by Stuart Whatley: “It is now a familiar story. A civilization that measures itself by its technological achievements is confronted with the limits of its power. A new threat, a sudden shock, has shown its tools to be wanting, yet it is now more dependent on them than ever before. While the few in a position to wrest back a semblance of control busy themselves preparing new models and methods, the nonessential masses hurl themselves at luminescent screens, like so many moths to the flame.

It is precisely at such moments of technological dependency that one might consider interrogating one’s relationship with technology more broadly. Yes, “this too shall pass,” because technology always holds the key to our salvation. The question is whether it also played a role in our original sin.

In 1909, following a watershed era of technological progress, but preceding the industrialized massacres of the Somme and Verdun, E.M. Forster imagined, in “The Machine Stops,” a future society in which the entirety of lived experience is administered by a kind of mechanical demiurge. The story is the perfect allegory for the moment, owing not least to its account of a society-wide sudden stop and its eerily prescient description of isolated lives experienced wholly through screens.

The denizens (for they are not citizens) of Forster’s world wile away their days in single-occupancy hexagonal underground rooms, where all of their basic needs are made available on demand. “The Machine…feeds us and clothes us and houses us,” they exclaim, “through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being.” As such, one’s only duty is to abide by the “spirit of the age.” Whereas in the past that may have entailed sacrifices, always to ensure “that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally,” most inhabitants now lead lives of leisure, “eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas.” 

Yet despite all of their comforts and free time, they are a harried leisure class, because they have absorbed the values of the Machine itself. They are obsessed with efficiency, an impulse that they discharge by trying to render order (“ideas”) from the unmanageable glut of information that the machine spits out. One character, Vashti, is a fully initiated member of the cult of efficiency. She does not bother trying to acquire a bed to fit her smaller stature more comfortably, for she accepts that “to have an alternative size would have involved vast alterations in the Machine.” Nor does she have any interest in traveling, because she generates “no ideas in an air-ship.” To her mind, any habit that “was unproductive of ideas…had no connexion with the habits that really mattered.” Everyone simply accepts that although the machine’s video feeds do not convey the nuances of one’s facial expressions, they’re “good enough for all practical purposes.”

Chief among Vashti’s distractions is her son, Kuno, a Cassandra-like figure who dares to point out that, “The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not to our goal.” When the mechanical system eventually begins to break down (starting with the music-streaming service, then the beds), the people have no choice but to take further recourse in the Machine. Complaints are lodged with the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, but the Mending Apparatus itself turns out to be broken. Rather than protest further, the people pray and pine for the Machine’s quick recovery. By that “latter day,” Forster explains, they “had become so subservient that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine.”…(More)”.

The institutionalization of digital public health: lessons learned from the COVID19 app

Paper by Ciro Cattuto and Alessandro Spina: “Amid the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, there has been a call to use innovative digital tools for the purpose of protecting public health. There are a number of proposals to embed digital solutions into the regulatory strategies adopted by public authorities to control the spread of the coronavirus more effectively. They range from algorithms to detect population movements by using telecommunication data to the use of artificial intelligence and high-performance computing power to detect patterns in the spread of the virus. However, the use of a mobile phone application for contact tracing is certainly the most popular.

These proposals, which have a very powerful persuasive force, and have apparently contributed to the success of public health response in a few Asian countries, also raise questions and criticisms in particular with regard to the risks that these novel digital surveillance systems pose for privacy and in the long term for our democracies.

With this short paper, we would like to describe the pattern that has led to the institutionalization of digital tools for public health purposes. By tracing their origins to “digital epidemiology”, an approach originated in the early 2010s, we will expose that, whilst there exists limited experimental knowledge on the use of digital tools for tracking disease, this is the first time in which they are being introduced by policy-makers into the set of non-clinical emergency strategies to a major public health crisis….(More)”

Crisis as Opportunity: Fostering Inclusive Public Engagement in Local Government

Ashley Labosier at Mercatus Center: “In addressing local challenges, such as budget deficits, aging infrastructure, workforce development, opioid addiction, homelessness, and disaster preparedness, a local government must take into account the needs, preferences, and values of its entire community, not just politically active groups. However, research shows that citizens who participate in council meetings or public hearings rarely reflect the diversity of the community in terms of age, race, or opinion, and traditional public comment periods seldom add substantively to local policy decisions. It is therefore clear that reform of public engagement in local governments is long overdue.

An opportunity for such a reform is emerging out of the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. As local governments cope with the crisis, they should strengthen their relationship with their residents by adopting measures that are inclusive and sensitive to all the constituencies in their jurisdiction.

This work starts by communicating clearly both the measures adopted to combat COVID-19 and the guidelines for citizen compliance and by making sure this information is accessible and disseminated throughout the entire community. During the crisis, building trust with the community will also entail restraining from advancing projects that are not instrumental to crisis management, particularly controversial projects. Diligence and prudence during the crisis should create the opportunity to try and test new forms of dialogue with citizens.

These new forms of engagement should increase the legitimacy and public support for government decisions and cultivate a civic culture where residents no longer see themselves as customers vying for services, but as citizens with ownership in the democratic process and its outcomes. In this brief, I propose ways to integrate digital technology tools into those new forms of public engagement.

Integrating Digital Technologies into Public Engagement

Over the past 15 years a new civic tech industry has emerged to assist local governments with public engagement. Videos and podcasts increase access to guidelines, rules, and procedures published by local governments. Real-time language translation is possible thanks to machine-learning algorithms that are relatively easy to integrate into online help lines. Government web portals increase access to official information, particularly for those with limited mobility or with visual or hearing impairments. These and other digital platforms have the potential to increase citizens’ participation, particularly when the costs—such as transportation or childcare—keep people from attending public meetings.

Indeed, tech solutions have the potential to increase citizen participation. During a decade of working with local governments on technology and public engagement, I have observed technologies that promote inclusiveness in public participation and technologies that simply magnify the voice of groups traditionally engaged in politics. Drawing from this experience, I offer local governments and agencies five recommendations to integrate technology into their public engagement programs….(More)”.