Codes we live by, laws we follow, and computers that move too fast to care.
Many of the technologists involved in data aggregation see a benefit to civil society. Ethicists, researchers, and corporate compliance officers, by way of contrast, may see risks to privacy and civil rights from big data.
Employers can get into legal trouble if they ask interviewees about their religion, sexual preference, or political affiliation. Yet they can use social media to filter out job applicants based on their beliefs, looks, and habits. Laws forbid lenders from discriminating on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality. Yet they can refuse to give a loan to people whose Facebook friends have bad payment histories, if their work histories on LinkedIn don’t match their bios on Facebook, or if a computer algorithm judges them to be socially undesirable.
These regulatory gaps exist because laws have not kept up with advances in technology. The gaps are getting wider as technology advances ever more rapidly. And it’s not just in employment and lending—the same is happening in every domain that technology touches.
Our laws and ethical practices have evolved over centuries. Today, technology is on an exponential curve and is touching practically everyone—everywhere. Changes of a magnitude that once took centuries now happen in decades, sometimes in years.
We haven’t come to grips with what is ethical, let alone with what the laws should be, in relation to technologies such as social media. Consider the question of privacy. Our laws date back to the late 19th century.
The gaps in privacy laws have grown exponentially since then.
There is a public outcry today—as there should be—about NSA surveillance, but the breadth of that surveillance pales in comparison to the data that Google, Apple, Facebook, and legions of app developers are collecting. Our smartphones track our movements and habits. Our Web searches reveal our thoughts. With the wearable devices and medical sensors that are being connected to our smartphones, information about our physiology and health is also coming into the public domain. Where do we draw the line on what is legal—and ethical?
Today, technology can read-out your genome from a few stray cells in less than a day. But we have yet to come to a social consensus on how private medical data can be collected and shared. We don’t even know who owns an individual’s DNA data. In the U.S., no law describes who this information belongs to.
We will have similar debates about self-driving cars, drones, and robots. These too will record everything we do and will raise new legal and ethical issues. What happens when a self-driving car has a software failure and hits a pedestrian, or a drone’s camera happens to catch someone skinny-dipping in a pool or taking a shower, or a robot kills a human in self-defense?
Thomas Jefferson said in 1816, “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
The problem is that the human mind itself can’t keep pace with the advances that computers are enabling.
Edited from an article by Vivek Wadhwa. Full article: