Tag Archives: trust

Facebook View and Ray-Ban glasses: here’s looking at your kid

Ray-Ban (EssilorLuxxotica) is selling glasses with ‘Facebook View’. The questions have already been asked whether they  can be lawful in Europe, including in the UK, in particular in regards to enabling the processing of children’s personal data without consent.

The Italian data authority has asked the company to explain via the Irish regulator:

  • the legal basis on which Facebook processes personal data;
  • the measures in place to protect people recorded by the glasses, children in particular,
  • questions of anonymisation of the data collected; and
  • the voice assistant connected to the microphone in the glasses.

While the first questions in Europe may be bound to data protection law and privacy, there are also questions of why Facebook has gone ahead despite Google Glass that was removed from the market in 2013. You can see a pair displayed in a surveillance exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum (September 2021).

We can’t wait to see the world from your perspective“, says Ray-ban Chief Wearables Officer Rocco Basilico in the promotional video together with Mark Zuckerberg.  I bet. But not as much as Facebook.

With cameras and microphones built-in, up to around 30 videos or 500 photos can be stored on the glasses, and shared with Facebook companion app. While the teensy light on a corner is supposed to be an indicator that recording is in progress, the glasses look much like any other and indistinguishable in the Ray-ban range. You can even buy them as prescription glasses, which intrigues me as to how that recording looks on playback, or shared via the companion apps.

While the Data Policy doesn’t explicitly mention Facebook View in the wording on how it uses data to “personalise and improve our Products,” and the privacy policy is vague on Facebook View, it seems pretty clear that Facebook will use the video capture to enhance its product development in augmented reality.

We believe this is an important step on the road to developing the ultimate augmented reality glasses“, says Mark Zuckerberg.(05:46)

The company needs a lawful basis to be able to process the data it receives for those purposes. It determines those purposes, and is therefore a data controller for that processing.

In the supplemental policy the company says that “Facebook View is intended solely for users who are 13 or older.” Data Protection law does not care about the age of the product user, but it does regulate under what basis a child’s data may be processed and that may be the user, setting up an account. It is also concerned about the data of the children who are recorded. By recognising  the legal limitations on who can be an account owner, it has a bit of a self-own here on what the law says on children’s data.

Personal privacy may have weak protection in data protection laws that offer the wearer exemptions for domestic** or journalistic purposes, but neither the user nor the company can avoid the fact that processing video and audio recordings may be without (a) adequately informing people whose data is processed or (b) appropriate purpose limitation for any processing that Facebook the company performs, across all of its front end apps and platforms or back-end processes.

I’ve asked Facebook how I would, as a parent or child, be able to get a wearer to destroy a child’s images and video or voice recorded in a public space, to which I did not consent. How would I get to see that content once held by Facebook, or request its processing be restricted by the company, or user, or the data destroyed?

Testing the Facebook ‘contact our DPO’ process as if I were a regular user, fails. It has sent me round the houses via automated forms.

Facebook is clearly wrong here on privacy grounds but if you can afford the best in the world on privacy law, why would you go ahead anyway? Might they believe after nearly twenty years of privacy invasive practice and a booming bottom line, that there is no risk to reputation, no risk to their business model, and no real risk to the company from regulation?

It’s an interesting partnership since Ray-Ban has no history in understanding privacy. Facebook has a well known controversial one.  Reputational risk shared, will not be reputational risk halved. And EssilorLuxottica has a share price to consider.  I wonder if they carried out any due diligence risk assessment for their investors?

If and when enforcement catches up and the product is withdrawn, regulators must act as the FTC did on the development of the product (in that case algorithms) from “ill gotten data”. (In the Matter of Everalbum and Paravision Commission File No. 1923172).

Destroy the data, destroy the knowledge gained, and remove it from any product development to  date.  All “Affected Work Product.”

Otherwise any penalty Facebook will get from this debacle, will be just the cost of doing business to have bought itself a very nice training dataset for its AR product development.

Ray-Ban of course, will take all the reputational hit if found enabling strangers to take covert video of our kids. No one expects any better from Facebook.  After all, we all know, Facebook takes your privacy, seriously.


Reference:  Rynes: On why your ring video doorbell may make you a controller under GDPR.

https://medium.com/golden-data/rynes-e78f09e34c52 (Golden Data, 2019)

Judgment of the Court (Fourth Chamber), 11 December 2014 František Ryneš v Úřad pro ochranu osobních údajů Case C‑212/13. Case file

exhibits from the Victoria and Albert museum (September 2021)

Thoughts from the YEIP Event: Preventing trust.

Here’s some thoughts about the Prevent programme, after the half day I spent at the event this week, Youth Empowerment and Addressing Violent Youth Radicalisation in Europe.

It was hosted by the Youth Empowerment and Innovation Project at the University of East London, to mark the launch of the European study on violent youth radicalisation from YEIP.

Firstly, I appreciated the dynamic and interesting youth panel. Young people, themselves involved in youth work, or early researchers on a range of topics. Panelists shared their thoughts on:

  • Removal of gang databases and systemic racial targeting
  • Questions over online content takedown with the general assumption that “someone’s got to do it.”
  • The purposes of Religious Education and lack of religious understanding as cause of prejudice, discrimination, and fear.

From these connections comes trust.

Next, Simon Chambers, from the British Council, UK National Youth Agency, and Erasmus UK, talked about the programme of Erasmus Plus, under the striking sub theme, from these connections comes trust.

  • 42% of the world’s population are under 25
  • Young people understand that there are wider, underlying complex factors in this area and are disproportionately affected by conflict, economic change and environmental disaster.
  • Many young people struggle to access education and decent work.
  • Young people everywhere can feel unheard and excluded from decision-making — their experience leads to disaffection and grievance, and sometimes to conflict.

We then heard a senior Home Office presenter speak about Radicalisation: the threat, drivers and Prevent programme.

On Contest 2018 Prevent / Pursue / Protect and Prepare

What was perhaps most surprising was his statement that the programme believes there is no checklist, [but in reality there are checklists] no single profile, or conveyer belt towards radicalisation.

“This shouldn’t be seen as some sort of predictive model,” he said. “It is not accurate to say that somehow we can predict who is going to become a terrorist, because they’ve got poor education levels, or because necessarily have a deprived background.”

But he then went on to again highlight the list of identified vulnerabilities in Thomas Mair‘s life, which suggests that these characteristics are indeed seen as indicators.

When I look at the ‘safeguarding-in-school’ software that is using vulnerabilities as signals for exactly that kind of prediction of intent, the gap between theory and practice here, is deeply problematic.

One slide included Internet content take downs, and suggested 300K pieces of illegal terrorist material have been removed since February 2010. That number he later suggested are contact with CTIRU, rather than content removal defined as a particular form. (For example it isn’t clear if this is a picture, a page, or whole site). This is still somewhat unclear and there remain important open questions, given its focus  in the online harms policy and discussion.

The big gap that was not discussed and that I believe matters, is how much autonomy teachers have, for example, to make a referral. He suggested “some teachers may feel confident” to do what is needed on their own but others, “may need help” and therefore make a referral. Statistics on those decision processes are missing, and it is very likely I believe that over referral is in part as a result of fearing that non-referral, once a computer has tagged issues as Prevent related, would be seen as negligent, or not meeting the statutory Prevent duty as it applies to schools.

On the Prevent Review, he suggested that the current timeline still stands, of August 2020, even though there is currently no Reviewer. It is for Ministers to make a decision, who will replace Lord Carlile.

Safeguarding children and young people from radicalisation

Mark Chalmers of Westminster City Council., then spoke about ‘safeguarding children and young people from radicalisation.’

He started off with a profile of the local authority demographic, poverty and wealth, migrant turnover,  proportion of non-English speaking households. This of itself may seem indicative of deliberate or unconscious bias.

He suggested that Prevent is not a security response, and expects  that the policing role in Prevent will be reduced over time, as more is taken over by Local Authority staff and the public services. [Note: this seems inevitable after the changes in the 2019 Counter Terrorism Act, to enable local authorities, as well as the police, to refer persons at risk of being drawn into terrorism to local channel panels. Should this have happened at all, was not consulted on as far as I know]. This claim that Prevent is not a security response, appears different in practice, when Local Authorities refuse FOI questions on the basis of security exemptions in the FOI Act, Section 24(1).

Both speakers declined to accept my suggestion that Prevent and Channel is not consensual. Participation in the programme, they were adamant is voluntary and confidential. The reality is that children do not feel they can make a freely given informed choice, in the face of an authority and the severity of the referral.  They also do not understand where their records go to, how confidential are they really, and how long they are kept or why.

The  recently concluded legal case and lengths one individual had to go to, to remove their personal record from the Prevent national database, shows just how problematic the mistaken perception of a consensual programme by authorities is.

I knew nothing of the Prevent programme at all in 2015. I only began to hear about it once I started mapping the data flows into, across and out of the state education sector, and teachers started coming to me with stories from their schools.

I found it fascinating to hear those speak at the conference that are so embedded in the programme. They seem unable to see it objectively or able to accept others’ critical point of view as truth. It stems perhaps from the luxury of having the privilege of believing you yourself, will be unaffected by its consequences.

“Yes,” said O’Brien, “we can turn it off. We have that privilege” (1984)

There was no ground given at all for accepting that there are deep flaws in practice. That in fact ‘Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatising and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it’ as concluded in the 2016 report  Preventing Education: Human Rights and Countering terrorism in UK Schools by Rights Watch UK .

Mark Chalmers conclusion was to suggest perhaps Prevent is not always going to be the current form, of bolt on ‘big programme’ and instead would be just like any other form of child protection, like FGM. That would mean every public sector worker, becomes an extended arm of the Home Office policy, expected to act in counter terrorism efforts.

But the training, the nuance, the level of application of autonomy that the speakers believe exists in staff and in children is imagined. The trust between authorities and people who need shelter, safety, medical care or schooling must be upheld for the public good.

No one asked, if and how children should be seen through the lens of terrorism, extremism and radicalisation at all. No one asked if and how every child, should be able to be surveilled online by school imposed software and covert photos taken through the webcam in the name of children’s safeguarding. Or labelled in school, associated with ‘terrorist.’ What happens when that prevents trust, and who measures its harm?

smoothwall monitor dashboard with terrorist labels on child profile

[click to view larger file]

Far too little is known about who and how makes decisions about the lives of others, the criteria for defining inappropriate activity or referrals, or the opacity of decisions on online content.

What effects will the Prevent programme have on our current and future society, where everyone is expected to surveil and inform upon each other? Failure to do so, to uphold the Prevent duty, becomes civic failure.  How is curiosity and intent separated? How do we safeguard children from risk (that is not harm) and protect their childhood experiences,  their free and full development of self?

No one wants children to be caught up in activities or radicalisation into terror groups. But is this the correct way to solve it?

This comprehensive new research by the YEIP suggests otherwise. The fact that the Home Office disengaged with the project in the last year, speaks volumes.

“The research provides new evidence that by attempting to profile and predict violent youth radicalisation, we may in fact be breeding the very reasons that lead those at risk to violent acts.” (Professor Theo Gavrielides).

Current case studies of lived experience, and history also say it is mistaken. Prevent when it comes to children, and schools, needs massive reform, at very least, but those most in favour of how it works today, aren’t the ones who can be involved in its reshaping.

“Who denounced you?” said Winston.

“It was my little daughter,” said Parsons with a sort of doleful pride. “She listened at the keyhole. Heard what I was saying, and nipped off to the patrols the very next day. Pretty smart for a nipper of seven, eh? I don’t bear her any grudge for it. In fact I’m proud of her. It shows I brought her up in the right spirit, anyway.” (1984).

 



The event was the launch of the European study on violent youth radicalisation from YEIP:  The project investigated the attitudes and knowledge of young Europeans, youth workers and other practitioners, while testing tools for addressing the phenomenon through positive psychology and the application of the Good Lives Model.

Its findings include that young people at risk of violent radicalisation are “managed” by the existing justice system as “risks”. This creates further alienation and division, while recidivism rates continue to spiral.

The devil craves DARPA

‘People, ideas, machines — in that order.’ This quote in that  latest blog by Dominic Cummings is spot on, but the blind spots or the deliberate scoping the blog reveals, are both just as interesting.

If you want to “figure out what characters around Putin might do”, move over Miranda. If your soul is for sale, then this might be the job for you. This isn’t anthropomorphism of Cummings, but an excuse to get in the parallels to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Priestly.

“It will be exhausting but interesting and if you cut it you will be involved in things at the age of 21 that most people never see.”

Comments like these make people who are not of that mould, feel of less worth. Commitment comes in many forms. People with kids and caring responsibilities, may be some of your most loyal staff. You may not want them as your new PA, but you will almost certainly, not want to lose them across the board.

Some words would be wise in follow up to existing staff, the thousands of public servants we have today, after his latest post.

1. The blog is aimed at a certain kind of men. Speak to women too.

The framing of this call for staff is problematic, less for its suggested work ethic, than the structural inequalities it appears to purposely perpetuate. Despite the poke at public school bluffers. Do you want the best people around you, able to play well with others, or not?

I am disappointed that asking for “the sort of people we need to find” is designed, intentionally or not, to appeal to a certain kind of men. Even if he says it should be diverse and includes people, “like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner.'”

If Cummings is intentional about hiring the best people, then he needs to do by better by women. We already have a PM that many women would consider toxic to work around, and won’t as a result.

Some of the most brilliant, cognitively diverse, young people I know who fit these categories well, — and across the political spectrum–are themselves diverse by nature and expect their surroundings to be. They (unlike our generation), do not “babble about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’.” Woke is not an adjective that needs explained, but a way of life. Put such people off by appearing to devalue their norms, and you’ll miss out on some potential brilliant applicants from the pool, which will already be self-selecting, excluding many who simply won’t work for you, or Boris, or Brexit blah blah. People prepared to burn out as you want them to, aren’t going to be at their best for long. And it takes a long time to recover.

‘That girl’ was the main character, and her name was Cayce Pollard.  Women know why you should say her name. Fewer women will have worked at CERN, perhaps for related reasons, compared with “the ideal candidate” described in this call.

“If you want an example of the sort of people we need to find in Britain, look at this’ he writes of C.C. Myers, with a link to, ‘On the Cover:  The World’s Fastest Man.

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett, Alexander Grothendieck, Bret Victor, von Neumann, Cialdini. Groves, Mueller, Jain, Pearl, Kay, Gibson, Grove, Makridakis, Yudkowsky, Graham and Thiel.

The *men illustrated* list, goes on and on.

What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?

Not something I care to discuss over dinner either.

But women of all ages do care that our PM appears to be a cad. It matters therefore that your people be seen to work to a better standard. You want people loyal to your cause, and the public to approve, even if they don’t of your leader. Leadership goes far beyond electoral numbers and a mandate.

Women — including those that tick the skill boxes need, yet again, to look beyond the numbers and have to put up with a lot. This advertorial appeals to Peter Parker, when the future needs more of Miles Morales. Fewer people with the privilege and opportunity to work at the Large Hadron Collider, and more of those who stop Kingpin’s misuse and shut it down.

A different kind of the same kind of thing, isn’t real change. This call for something new, is far less radical than it is being portrayed as.

2. Change. Don’t forget to manage it by design.

In fact, the speculation that this is all change, hiring new people for new stuff [some of which elsewhere he has genuinely interesting ideas on, like, “decentralisation and distributed control to minimise the inevitable failures of even the best people”] doesn’t really feature here, rather it is something of a precursor. He’s starting less with building the new, and rather with let’s ‘drain the swamp’ of bureaucracy. The Washington-style of 1980’s Reagan, including, ‘let’s put in some more of our kind of people’.

His personal brand of longer-term change may not be what some of his cheerleaders think it will be, but if the outcome is the same and seen to be ‘showing these Swamp creatures the zero mercy they deserve‘, [sic] does intent matter? It does, and he needs to describe his future plans better, if he wants to have a civil service  that works well.

The biggest content gap (leaving actual policy content aside) is any appreciation of the current, and need for change management.

Training gets a mention; but new process success, depends on effectively communicating on change, and delivering training about it to all, not only those from whom you expect the most high performance. People not projects, remember?

Change management and capability transfer delivered by costly consultants, is not needed, but making it understandable not elitist, is.

  • genuinely present an understanding of the as-is,  (I get you and your org, for change *with* you, not to force change upon you)
  • communicating what the future model is going to move towards (this is why you want to change and what good looks like), and
  • a roadmap of how you expect the organisation to get there (how and when), that need not be constricted by artificial comms grids.

Because people and having their trust, are what make change work.

On top of the organisational model, *every* member of staff must know where their own path fits in, and if their role is under threat, whether training will be offered to adapt, or whether they will be made redundant. Uncertainty around this over time, is also toxic. You might not care if you lose people along the way. You might consider these the most expendable people. But if people are fearful and unhappy in your organisation, or about their own future, it will hold them back from delivering at their best, and the organisation as a result.  And your best will leave, as much as those who are not.

“How to build great teams and so on”, is not a bolt-on extra here, it is fundamental.  You can’t forget the kitchens. But changing the infrastructure alone, cannot deliver real change you want to see.

3. Communications. Neither propaganda and persuasion nor PR.

There is not such a vast difference between the business of communications as a campaign tool, and tool for control. Persuasion and propaganda. But where there may be a blind spot in the promotion of the Cialdini-six style comms, is that behavioural scientists that excel at these, will not use the kind of communication tools that either the civil service nor the country needs for the serious communications of change, beyond the immediate short term.

Five thoughts:

  1. Your comms strategy should simply be “Show the thing. Be clear. Be brief.”
  2. Communicating that failure is acceptable, is only so if it means learning from it.
  3. If policy comms plans depend on work led by people like you,  who like each other and like you, you’ll be told what you want to hear.
  4. Ditto, think tanks that think the same are not as helpful as others.
  5. And you need grit in the oyster for real change.

As an aside, for anyone having kittens about using an unofficial email to get around FOI requests and think it a conspiracy to hide internal communications, it really doesn’t work that way. Don’t panic, we know where our towel is.

4. The Devil craves DARPA. Build it with safe infrastructures.

Cumming’s long-established fetishing of technology and fascination with Moscow will be familiar to those close, or blog readers. They are also currently fashionable, again. The solution is therefore no surprise, and has been prepped in various blogs for ages. The language is familiar. But single-mindedness over this length of time, can make for short sightedness.

In the US. DARPA was set up in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, with a remit to “prevent technological surprise” and pump money into “high risk, high reward” projects. (Sunday Times, Dec 28, 2019)

In  March, Cummings wrote in praise of Project Maven;

“The limiting factor for the Pentagon in deploying advanced technology to conflict in a useful time period was not new technical ideas — overcoming its own bureaucracy was harder than overcoming enemy action.”

Almost a year after that project collapsed, its most interesting feature was surely not the role of bureaucracy among tech failure. Maven was a failure not of tech, nor bureaucracy, but to align its values with the decency of its workforce. Whether the recallibration of its compass as a company is even possible, remains to be seen.

If firing staff who hold you to account against a mantra of ‘don’t be evil’ is championed, this drive for big tech values underpinning your staff thinking and action, will be less about supporting technology moonshots, than a shift to the Dark Side of capitalist surveillance.

The incessant narrative focus on man and the machine –machine learning, ⁠—the machinery of government, quantitative models and the frontiers of the science of prediction is an obsession with power. The downplay of the human in that world ⁠—is displayed in so many ways, but the most obvious is the press and political narrative of a need to devalue human rights, ⁠— and yet to succeed, tech and innovation needs an equal and equivalent counterweight, in accountability under human rights and the law, so that when systems fail people, they do not cause catastrophic harm at scale.

“Practically nobody is ever held accountable regardless of the scale of failure, you say? How do you measure your own failure? Or the failure of policy? Transparency over that, and a return to Ministerial accountability are changes I would like to see. Or how about demanding accountability for algorithms that send children to social care, of which the CEO has said his failure is only measured by a Local Authority not saving money as a result of using their system?

We must stop state systems failing children, if they are not to create a failed society.

A UK DARPA-esque, devolved hothousing for technology will fail, if you don’t shore up public trust. Both in the state and commercial sectors. An electoral mandate won’t last, nor reach beyond its scope for long. You need a social licence to have legitimacy for tech that uses public data, that is missing today. It is bone-headed and idiotic that we can’t get this right as a country.  Despite knowing how to, if government keeps avoiding doing it safely, it will come at a cost.

The Pentagon certainly cares about the implications for national security when the personal data of millions of people could be open to exploitation, blackmail or abuse.

You might of course, not care. But commercial companies will when they go under. The electorate will. Your masters might if their legacy will suffer and debate about the national good and the UK as a Life Sciences centre, all come to naught.

There was little in this blog, of the reality of what these hires should deliver beyond more tech and systems’ change. But the point is to make systems that work for people, not see more systems at work.

We could have it all, but not if you spaff our data laws up the wall.

“But the ship can’t sink.”

“She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can. And she will. It is a mathematical certainty.

[Attributed to Thomas Andrews, Chief Designer of the RMS Titanic.]

5. The ‘circle of competence’ needs values, not only to value skills.

It’s important and consistent behaviour that Cummings says he recognises his own weaknesses, that some decisions are beyond his ‘circle of competence’ and that he should in in effect become redundant, having brought in, “the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed.” Founder’s syndrome is common to organisations and politics is not exempt. But neither is the Peter principle a phenomenon particular to only the civil service.

“One of the problems with the civil service is the way in which people are shuffled such that they either do not acquire expertise or they are moved out of areas they really know to do something else.”

But so what? what’s worse, is politics has not only the Peter’s but the Dilbert principle when it comes to senior leadership. You can’t put people in positions expected to command respect when they tell others to shut up and go away. Or fire without due process. If you want orgs to function together at scale, especially beyond the current problems with silos, they need people on the ground who can work together, and have a common goal who respect those above them, and feel it is all worthwhile. Their politics don’t matter. But integrity, respect and trust do, even if they don’t matter to you personally.

I agree wholeheartedly that circles of competence matter [as I see the need to build some in education on data and edTech]. Without the appropriate infrastructure change, radical change of policy is nearly impossible. But skill is not the only competency that counts when it comes to people.

If the change you want is misaligned with people’s values, people won’t support it, no matter who you get to see it through. Something on the integrity that underpins this endeavour,  will matter to the applicants too. Most people do care how managers treat their own.

The blog was pretty clear that Cummings won’t value staff, unless their work ethic, skills and acceptance will belong to him alone to judge sufficient or not, to be “binned within weeks if you don’t fit.”

This government already knows it has treated parts of the public like that for too long. Policy has knowingly left some people behind on society’s  scrap heap, often those scored by automated systems as inadequate. Families in-work moved onto Universal Credit, feed their children from food banks for #5WeeksTooLong. The rape clause. Troubled families. Children with special educational needs battling for EHC plan recognition without which schools won’t take them, and DfE knowingly underfunding suitable Alternative Provision in education by a colossal several hundred per cent amount per place, by design.

The ‘circle of competence’ needs to recognise what happens as a result of policy, not only to place value on the skills in its delivery or see outcomes on people as inevitable or based on merit. Charlie Munger may have said, “At the end of the day – if you live long enough – most people get what they deserve.”

An awful lot of people deserve a better standard of living and human dignity than the UK affords them today. And we can’t afford not to fix it. A question for new hires: How will you contribute to doing this?

6. Remember that our civil servants, are after all, public servants.  

The real test of competence, and whether the civil service delivers for the people whom they serve, is inextricably bound with government policy. If its values, if its ethics are misguided, building a new path with or without new people, will be impossible.

The best civil servants I have worked with, have one thing in common. They have a genuine desire to make the world better. [We can disagree on what that looks like and for whom, on fraud detection, on immigration, on education, on exploitation of data mining and human rights, or the implications of the law. Their policy may bring harm, but their motivation is not malicious.] Your goal may be a ‘better’ civil service. They may be more focussed on better outcomes for people, not systems. Lose sight of that, and you put the service underpinning government, at risk. Not to bring change for good, but to destroy the very point of it.  Keep the point of a better service, focussed on the improvement for the public.

Civil servants civilly serve in the words of asked, so should we all ask Cummings to outline his thoughts on:

  • “What makes the decisions which civil servants implement legitimate?
  • Where are the boundaries of that legitimacy and how can they be detected?
  • What should civil servants do if those boundaries are reached and crossed?”

Self-destruction for its own sake, is not a compelling narrative for change, whether you say you want to control that narrative, or not.

Two hands are a lot, but many more already work in the civil service. If Cummings only works against them, he’ll succeed not in building change, but resistance.

Thoughts on the Online Harms White Paper (I)

“Whatever the social issue we want to grasp – the answer should always begin with family.”

Not my words, but David Cameron’s. Just five years ago, Conservative policy was all about “putting families at the centre of domestic policy-making.”

Debate on the Online Harms White Paper, thanks in part to media framing of its own departmental making, is almost all about children. But I struggle with the debate that leaves out our role as parents almost entirely, other than as bereft or helpless victims ourselves.

I am conscious wearing my other hat of defenddigitalme, that not all families are the same, and not all children have families. Yet it seems counter to conservative values,  for a party that places the family traditionally at the centre of policy, to leave out or abdicate parents of responsibility for their children’s actions and care online.

Parental responsibility cannot be outsourced to tech companies, or accept it’s too hard to police our children’s phones. If we as parents are concerned about harms, it is our responsibility to enable access to that which is not, and be aware and educate ourselves and our children on what is. We are aware of what they read in books. I cast an eye over what they borrow or buy. I play a supervisory role.

Brutal as it may be, the Internet is not responsible for suicide. It’s just not that simple. We cannot bring children back from the dead. We certainly can as society and policy makers, try and create the conditions that harms are not normalised, and do not become more common.  And seek to reduce risk. But few would suggest social media is a single source of children’s mental health issues.

What policy makers are trying to regulate is in essence, not a single source of online harms but 2.1 billion users’ online behaviours.

It follows that to see social media as a single source of attributable fault per se, is equally misplaced. A one-size-fits-all solution is going to be flawed, but everyone seems to have accepted its inevitability.

So how will we make the least bad law?

If we are to have sound law that can be applied around what is lawful,  we must reduce the substance of debate by removing what is already unlawful and has appropriate remedy and enforcement.

Debate must also try to be free from emotive content and language.

I strongly suspect the language around ‘our way of life’ and ‘values’ in the White Paper comes from the Home Office. So while it sounds fair and just, we must remember reality in the background of TOEIC, of Windrush, of children removed from school because their national records are being misused beyond educational purposes. The Home Office is no friend of child rights, and does not foster the societal values that break down discrimination and harm. It instead creates harms of its own making, and division by design.

I’m going to quote Graham Smith, for I cannot word it better.

“Harms to society, feature heavily in the White Paper, for example: content or activity that:

“threatens our way of life in the UK, either by undermining national security, or by reducing trust and undermining our shared rights, responsibilities and opportunities to foster integration.”

Similarly:

“undermine our democratic values and debate”;

“encouraging us to make decisions that could damage our health, undermining our respect and tolerance for each other and confusing our understanding of what is happening in the wider world.”

This kind of prose may befit the soapbox or an election manifesto, but has no place in or near legislation.”

[Cyberleagle, April 18, 2019,Users Behaving Badly – the Online Harms White Paper]

My key concern in this area is that through a feeling of ‘it is all awful’ stems the sense that ‘all regulation will be better than now’, and  comes with a real risk of increasing current practices that would not be better than now, and in fact need fixing.

More monitoring

The first, is today’s general monitoring of school children’s Internet content for risk and harms, which creates unintended consequences and very real harms of its own — at the moment, without oversight.

In yesterday’s House of Lords debate, Lord Haskel, said,

“This is the practicality of monitoring the internet. When the duty of care required by the White Paper becomes law, companies and regulators will have to do a lot more of it. ” [April 30, HOL]

The Brennan Centre yesterday published its research on the spend by US schools purchasing social media monitoring software from 2013-18, and highlighted some of the issues:

Aside from anecdotes promoted by the companies that sell this software, there is no proof that these surveillance tools work [compared with other practices]. But there are plenty of risks. In any context, social media is ripe for misinterpretation and misuse.” [Brennan Centre for Justice, April 30, 209]

That monitoring software focuses on two things —

a) seeing children through the lens of terrorism and extremism, and b) harms caused by them to others, or as victims of harms by others, or self-harm.

It is the near same list of ‘harms’ topics that the White Paper covers. Co-driven by the same department interested in it in schools — the Home Office.

These concerns are set in the context of the direction of travel of law and policy making, its own loosening of accountability and process.

It was preceded by a House of Commons discussion on Social Media and Health, lead by the former Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport who seems to feel more at home in that sphere, than in health.

His unilateral award of funds to the Samaritans for work with Google and Facebook on a duty of care, while the very same is still under public consultation, is surprising to say the least.

But it was his response to this question, which points to the slippery slope such regulations may lead. The Freedom of Speech champions should be most concerned not even by what is potentially in any legislation ahead, but in the direction of travel and debate around it.

“Will he look at whether tech giants such as Amazon can be brought into the remit of the Online Harms White Paper?

He replied, that “Amazon sells physical goods for the most part and surely has a duty of care to those who buy them, in the same way that a shop has a responsibility for what it sells. My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will follow up.”

Mixed messages

The Center for Democracy and Technology recommended in its 2017 report, Mixed Messages? The Limits of Automated Social Media Content Analysis, that the use of automated content analysis tools to detect or remove illegal content should never be mandated in law.

Debate so far has demonstrated broad gaps between what is wanted, in knowledge, and what is possible. If behaviours are to be stopped because they are undesirable rather than unlawful, we open up a whole can of worms if not done with the greatest attention to  detail.

Lord Stevenson and Lord McNally both suggested that pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, and more discussion would be positive. Let’s hope it happens.

Here’s my personal first reflections on the Online Harms White Paper discussion so far.

Six suggestions:

Suggestion one: 

The Law Commission Review, mentioned in the House of Lords debate,  may provide what I have been thinking of crowd sourcing and now may not need to. A list of laws that the Online Harms White Paper related discussion reaches into, so that we can compare what is needed in debate versus what is being sucked in. We should aim to curtail emotive discussion of broad risk and threat that people experience online. This would enable the themes which are already covered in law to be avoided, and focus on the gaps.  It would make for much tighter and more effective legislation. For example, the Crown Prosecution Service offers Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media, but a wider list of law is needed.

Suggestion two:
After (1) defining what legislation is lacking, definitions must be very clear, narrow, and consistent across other legislation. Not for the regulator to determine ad-hoc and alone.

Suggestion three:
If children’s rights are at to be so central in discussion on this paper, then their wider rights must including privacy and participation, access to information and freedom of speech must be included in debate. This should include academic research-based evidence of children’s experience online when making the regulations.

Suggestion four:
Internet surveillance software in schools should be publicly scrutinised. A review should establish the efficacy, boundaries and oversight of policy and practice regards Internet monitoring for harms and not embed even more, without it. Boundaries should be put into legislation for clarity and consistency.

Suggestion five:
Terrorist activity or child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) online are already unlawful and should not need additional Home Office powers. Great caution must be exercised here.

Suggestion six: 
Legislation could and should encapsulate accountability and oversight for micro-targeting and algorithmic abuse.


More detail behind my thinking, follows below, after the break. [Structure rearranged on May 14, 2019]


Continue reading “Thoughts on the Online Harms White Paper (I)” »

Policy shapers, product makers, and profit takers (1)

In 2018, ethics became the new fashion in UK data circles.

The launch of the Women Leading in AI principles of responsible AI, has prompted me to try and finish and post these thoughts, which have been on my mind for some time. If two parts of 1K is tl:dr for you, then in summary, we need more action on:

  • Ethics as a route to regulatory avoidance.
  • Framing AI and data debates as a cost to the Economy.
  • Reframing the debate around imbalance of risk.
  • Challenging the unaccountable and the ‘inevitable’.

And in the next post on:

  • Corporate Capture.
  • Corporate Accountability, and
  • Creating Authentic Accountability.

Ethics as a route to regulatory avoidance

In 2019, the calls to push aside old wisdoms for new, for everyone to focus on the value-laden words of ‘innovation’ and ‘ethics’, appears an ever louder attempt to reframe regulation and law as barriers to business, asking to cast them aside.

On Wednesday evening, at the launch of the Women Leading in AI principles of responsible AI, the chair of the CDEI said in closing, he was keen to hear from companies where, “they were attempting to use AI effectively and encountering difficulties due to regulatory structures.”

In IBM’s own words to government recently,

A rush to further regulation can have the effect of chilling innovation and missing out on the societal and economic benefits that AI can bring.”

The vague threat is very clear, if you regulate, you’ll lose. But the the societal and economic benefits are just as vague.

So far, many talking about ethics are trying to find a route to regulatory avoidance. ‘We’ll do better,’ they promise.

In Ben Wagner’s recent paper, Ethics as an Escape from Regulation: From ethics-washing to ethics-shopping,he asks how to ensure this does not become the default engagement with ethical frameworks or rights-based design. He sums up, “In this world, ‘ethics’ is the new ‘industry self-regulation.”

Perhaps it’s ingenious PR to make sure that what is in effect self-regulation, right across the business model, looks like it comes imposed from others, from the very bodies set up to fix it.

But as I think about in part 2, is this healthy for UK public policy and the future not of an industry sector, but a whole technology, when it comes to AI?

Framing AI and data debates as a cost to the Economy

Companies, organisations and individuals arguing against regulation are framing the debate as if it would come at a great cost to society and the economy. But we rarely hear, what effect do they expect on their company. What’s the cost/benefit expected for them. It’s disingenuous to have only part of that conversation. In fact the AI debate would be richer were it to be included. If companies think their innovation or profits are at risk from non-use, or regulated use, and there is risk to the national good associated with these products, we should be talking about all of that.

And in addition, we can talk about use and non-use in society. Too often, the whole debate is intangible. Show me real costs, real benefits. Real risk assessments. Real explanations that speak human. Industry should show society what’s in it for them.

You don’t want it to ‘turn out like GM crops’? Then learn their lessons on transparency, trustworthiness, and avoid the hype. And understand sometimes there is simply tech, people do not want.

Reframing the debate around imbalance of risk

And while we often hear about the imbalance of power associated with using AI, we also need to talk about the imbalance of risk.

While a small false positive rate for a company product may be a great success for them, or for a Local Authority buying the service, it might at the same time, mean lives forever changed, children removed from families, and individual reputations ruined.

And where company owners may see no risk from the product they assure is safe, there are intangible risks that need factored in, for example in education where a child’s learning pathway is determined by patterns of behaviour, and how tools shape individualised learning, as well as the model of education.

Companies may change business model, ownership, and move on to other sectors after failure. But with the levels of unfairness already felt in the relationship between the citizen and State — in programmes like Troubled Families, Universal Credit, Policing, and Prevent — where use of algorithms and ever larger datasets is increasing, long term harm from unaccountable failure will grow.

Society needs a rebalance of the system urgently to promote transparent fairness in interactions, including but not only those with new applications of technology.

We must find ways to reframe how this imbalance of risk is assessed, and is distributed between companies and the individual, or between companies and state and society, and enable access to meaningful redress when risks turn into harm.

If we are to do that, we need first to separate truth from hype, public good from self-interest and have a real discussion of risk across the full range from individual, to state, to society at large.

That’s not easy against a non-neutral backdrop and scant sources of unbiased evidence and corporate capture.

Challenging the unaccountable and the ‘inevitable’.

In 2017 the Care Quality Commission reported into online services in the NHS, and found serious concerns of unsafe and ineffective care. They have a cross-regulatory working group.

By contrast, no one appears to oversee that risk and the embedded use of automated tools involved in decision-making or decision support, in children’s services, or education. Areas where AI and cognitive behavioural science and neuroscience are already in use, without ethical approval, without parental knowledge or any transparency.

Meanwhile, as all this goes on, academics many are busy debating fixing algorithmic bias, accountability and its transparency.

Few are challenging the narrative of the ‘inevitability’ of AI.

Julia Powles and Helen Nissenbaum recently wrote that many of these current debates are an academic distraction, removed from reality. It is under appreciated how deeply these tools are already embedded in UK public policy. “Trying to “fix” A.I. distracts from the more urgent questions about the technology. It also denies us the possibility of asking: Should we be building these systems at all?”

Challenging the unaccountable and the ‘inevitable’ is the title of the conclusion of the Women Leading in AI report on principles, and makes me hopeful.

“There is nothing inevitable about how we choose to use this disruptive technology. […] And there is no excuse for failing to set clear rules so that it remains accountable, fosters our civic values and allows humanity to be stronger and better.”

[1] Powles, Nissenbaum, 2018,The Seductive Diversion of ‘Solving’ Bias in Artificial Intelligence, Medium

Next: Part  2– Policy shapers, product makers, and profit takers on

  • Corporate Capture.
  • Corporate Accountability, and
  • Creating Authentic Accountability.

Policy shapers, product makers, and profit takers (2)

Corporate capture

Companies are increasingly in controlling positions of the tech narrative in the press. They are funding neutral third-sector orgs’ and think tanks’ research. Supporting organisations advising on online education. Closely involved in politics. And sit increasingly, within the organisations set up to lead the technology vision, advising government on policy and UK data analytics, or on social media, AI and ethics.

It is all subject to corporate capture.

But is this healthy for UK public policy and the future not of an industry sector, but a whole technology, when it comes to AI?

If a company’s vital business interests seem unfazed by the risk and harm they cause to individuals — from people who no longer trust the confidentiality of the system to measurable harms — why should those companies sit on public policy boards set up to shape the ethics they claim we need, to solve the problems and restore loss of trust that these very same companies are causing?

We laud people in these companies as co-founders and forward thinkers on new data ethics institutes. They are invited to sit on our national boards, or create new ones.

What does that say about the entire board’s respect for the law which the company breached? It is hard not to see it signal acceptance of the company’s excuses or lack of accountability.

Corporate accountability

The same companies whose work has breached data protection law, multiple ways, seemingly ‘by accident’ on national data extractions, are those companies that cross the t’s and dot the i’s on even the simplest conference call, and demand everything is said in strictest confidence. Meanwhile their everyday business practices ignore millions of people’s lawful rights to confidentiality.

The extent of commercial companies’ influence on these boards is  opaque. To allow this ethics bandwagon to be driven by the corporate giants surely eschews genuine rights-based values, and long-term integrity of the body they appear to serve.

I am told that these global orgs must be in the room and at the table, to use the opportunity to make the world a better place.

These companies already have *all* the opportunity. Not only monopoly positions on their own technology, but the datasets at scale which underpin it, excluding new entrants to the market. Their pick of new hires from universities. The sponsorship of events. The political lobbying. Access to the media. The lawyers. Bottomless pockets to pay for it all. And seats at board tables set up to shape UK policy responses.

It’s a struggle for power, and a stake in our collective future. The status quo is not good enough for many parts of society, and to enable Big Tech or big government to maintain that simply through the latest tools, is a missed chance to reshape for good.

You can see it in many tech boards’ make up, and pervasive white male bias. We hear it echoed in London think tank conferences, even independent tech design agencies, or set out in some Big Tech reports. All seemingly unconnected, but often funded by the same driving sources.

These companies are often those that made it worse to start with, and the very ethics issues the boards have been set up to deal with, are at the core of their business models and of their making.

The deliberate infiltration of influence on online safety policy for children, or global privacy efforts is very real, explicitly set out in the #FacebookEmails, for example.

We will not resolve these fundamental questions, as long as the companies whose business depend on them, steer national policy. The odds will be ever in their favour.

At the same time, some of these individuals are brilliant. In all senses.

So what’s the answer. If they are around the table, what should the UK public expect of their involvement, and ensure in whose best interests it is? How do we achieve authentic accountability?

Whether it be social media, data analytics, or AI in public policy, can companies be safely permitted to be policy shapers if they wear all the hats; product maker, profit taker, *and* process or product auditor?

Creating Authentic Accountability

At minimum we must demand responsibility for their own actions from board members who represent or are funded by companies.

  1. They must deliver on their own product problems first before being allowed to suggest solutions to societal problems.
  2. There should be credible separation between informing policy makers, and shaping policy.
  3. There must be total transparency of funding sources across any public sector boards, of members, and those lobbying them.
  4. Board members must be meaningfully held accountable for continued company transgressions on rights and freedoms, not only harms.
  5. Oversight of board decision making must be decentralised, transparent and available to scrutiny and meaningful challenge.

While these new bodies may propose solutions that include public engagement strategies, transparency, and standards, few propose meaningful oversight. The real test is not what companies say in their ethical frameworks, but in what they continue to do.

If they fail to meet legal or regulatory frameworks, minimum accountability should mean no more access to public data sets and losing positions of policy influence.

Their behaviour needs to go above and beyond meeting the letter of the law, scraping by or working around rights based protections. They need to put people ahead of profit and self interests. That’s what ethics should mean, not be a PR route to avoid regulation.

As long as companies think the consequences of their platforms and actions are tolerable and a minimal disruption to their business model, society will be expected to live with their transgressions, and our most vulnerable will continue to pay the cost.


This is part 2 of thoughts on Policy shapers, product makers, and profit takers — data and AI. Part 1 is here.

The power of imagination in public policy

“A new, a vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible.” [on Ada Lovelace, The First tech Visionary, New Yorker, 2013]

What would Ada Lovelace have argued for in today’s AI debates? I think she may have used her voice not only to call for the good use of data analysis, but for her second strength.The power of her imagination.

James Ball recently wrote in The European [1]:

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the modern political war isn’t one against poverty, or against crime, or drugs, or even the tech giants – our modern political era is dominated by a war against reality.”

My overriding take away from three days spent at the Conservative Party Conference this week, was similar. It reaffirmed the title of a school debate I lost at age 15, ‘We only believe what we want to believe.’

James writes that it is, “easy to deny something that’s a few years in the future“, and that Conservatives, “especially pro-Brexit Conservatives – are sticking to that tried-and-tested formula: denying the facts, telling a story of the world as you’d like it to be, and waiting for the votes and applause to roll in.”

These positions are not confined to one party’s politics, or speeches of future hopes, but define perception of current reality.

I spent a lot of time listening to MPs. To Ministers, to Councillors, and to party members. At fringe events, in coffee queues, on the exhibition floor. I had conversations pressed against corridor walls as small press-illuminated swarms of people passed by with Queen Johnson or Rees-Mogg at their centre.

In one panel I heard a primary school teacher deny that child poverty really exists, or affects learning in the classroom.

In another, in passing, a digital Minister suggested that Pupil Referral Units (PRU) are where most of society’s ills start, but as a Birmingham head wrote this week, “They’ll blame the housing crisis on PRUs soon!” and “for the record, there aren’t gang recruiters outside our gates.”

This is no tirade on failings of public policymakers however. While it is easy to suspect malicious intent when you are at, or feel, the sharp end of policies which do harm, success is subjective.

It is clear that an overwhelming sense of self-belief exists in those responsible, in the intent of any given policy to do good.

Where policies include technology, this is underpinned by a self re-affirming belief in its power. Power waiting to be harnessed by government and the public sector. Even more appealing where it is sold as a cost-saving tool in cash strapped councils. Many that have cut away human staff are now trying to use machine power to make decisions. Some of the unintended consequences of taking humans out of the process, are catastrophic for human rights.

Sweeping human assumptions behind such thinking on social issues and their causes, are becoming hard coded into algorithmic solutions that involve identifying young people who are in danger of becoming involved in crime using “risk factors” such as truancy, school exclusion, domestic violence and gang membership.

The disconnect between perception of risk, the reality of risk, and real harm, whether perceived or felt from these applied policies in real-life, is not so much, ‘easy to deny something that’s a few years in the future‘ as Ball writes, but a denial of the reality now.

Concerningly, there is lack of imagination of what real harms look like.There is no discussion where sometimes these predictive policies have no positive, or even a negative effect, and make things worse.

I’m deeply concerned that there is an unwillingness to recognise any failures in current data processing in the public sector, particularly at scale, and where it regards the well-known poor quality of administrative data. Or to be accountable for its failures.

Harms, existing harms to individuals, are perceived as outliers. Any broad sweep of harms across policy like Universal Credit, seem perceived as political criticism, which makes the measurable failures less meaningful, less real, and less necessary to change.

There is a worrying growing trend of finger-pointing exclusively at others’ tech failures instead. In particular, social media companies.

Imagination and mistaken ideas are reinforced where the idea is plausible, and shared. An oft heard and self-affirming belief was repeated in many fora between policymakers, media, NGOs regards children’s online safety. “There is no regulation online”. In fact, much that applies offline applies online. The Crown Prosecution Service Social Media Guidelines is a good place to start. [2] But no one discusses where children’s lives may be put at risk or less safe, through the use of state information about them.

Policymakers want data to give us certainty. But many uses of big data, and new tools appear to do little more than quantify moral fears, and yet still guide real-life interventions in real-lives.

Child abuse prediction, and school exclusion interventions should not be test-beds for technology the public cannot scrutinise or understand.

In one trial attempting to predict exclusion, this recent UK research project in 2013-16 linked children’s school records of 800 children in 40 London schools, with Metropolitan Police arrest records of all the participants. It found interventions created no benefit, and may have caused harm. [3]

“Anecdotal evidence from the EiE-L core workers indicated that in some instances schools informed students that they were enrolled on the intervention because they were the “worst kids”.”

Keeping students in education, by providing them with an inclusive school environment, which would facilitate school bonds in the context of supportive student–teacher relationships, should be seen as a key goal for educators and policy makers in this area,” researchers suggested.

But policy makers seem intent to use systems that tick boxes, and create triggers to single people out, with quantifiable impact.

Some of these systems are known to be poor, or harmful.

When it comes to predicting and preventing child abuse, there is concern with the harms in US programmes ahead of us, such as both Pittsburgh, and Chicago that has scrapped its programme.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services ended a high-profile program that used computer data mining to identify children at risk for serious injury or death after the agency’s top official called the technology unreliable, and children still died.

“We are not doing the predictive analytics because it didn’t seem to be predicting much,” DCFS Director Beverly “B.J.” Walker told the Tribune.

Many professionals in the UK share these concerns. How long will they be ignored and children be guinea pigs without transparent error rates, or recognition of the potential harmful effects?

Helen Margetts, Director of the Oxford Internet Institute and Programme Director for Public Policy at the Alan Turing Institute, suggested at the IGF event this week, that stopping the use of these AI in the public sector is impossible. We could not decide that, “we’re not doing this until we’ve decided how it’s going to be.” It can’t work like that.” [45:30]

Why on earth not? At least for these high risk projects.

How long should children be the test subjects of machine learning tools at scale, without transparent error rates, audit, or scrutiny of their systems and understanding of unintended consequences?

Is harm to any child a price you’re willing to pay to keep using these systems to perhaps identify others, while we don’t know?

Is there an acceptable positive versus negative outcome rate?

The evidence so far of AI in child abuse prediction is not clearly showing that more children are helped than harmed.

Surely it’s time to stop thinking, and demand action on this.

It doesn’t take much imagination, to see the harms. Safe technology, and safe use of data, does not prevent the imagination or innovation, employed for good.

If we continue to ignore views from Patrick Brown, Ruth Gilbert, Rachel Pearson and Gene Feder, Charmaine Fletcher, Mike Stein, Tina Shaw and John Simmonds I want to know why.

Where you are willing to sacrifice certainty of human safety for the machine decision, I want someone to be accountable for why.

 


References

[1] James Ball, The European, Those waging war against reality are doomed to failure, October 4, 2018.

[2] Thanks to Graham Smith for the link. “Social Media – Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) , August 2018.”

[3] Obsuth, I., Sutherland, A., Cope, A. et al. J Youth Adolescence (2017) 46: 538. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0468-4 London Education and Inclusion Project (LEIP): Results from a Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial of an Intervention to Reduce School Exclusion and Antisocial Behavior (March 2016)

Can Data Trusts be trustworthy?

The Lords Select Committee report on AI in the UK in March 2018, suggested that,“the Government plans to adopt the Hall-Pesenti Review recommendation that ‘data trusts’ be established to facilitate the ethical sharing of data between organisations.”

Since data distribution already happens, what difference would a Data Trust model make to ‘ethical sharing‘?

A ‘set of relationships underpinned by a repeatable framework, compliant with parties’ obligations’ seems little better than what we have today, with all its problems including deeply unethical policy and practice.

The ODI set out some of the characteristics Data Trusts might have or share. As importantly, we should define what Data Trusts are not. They should not simply be a new name for pooling content and a new single distribution point. Click and collect.

But is a Data Trust little more than a new description for what goes on already? Either a physical space or legal agreements for data users to pass around the personal data from the unsuspecting, and sometimes unwilling, public. Friends-with-benefits who each bring something to the party to share with the others?

As with any communal risk, it is the standards of the weakest link, the least ethical, the one that pees in the pool, that will increase reputational risk for all who take part, and spoil it for everyone.

Importantly, the Lords AI Committee report recognised that there is an inherent risk how the public would react to Data Trusts, because there is no social license for this new data sharing.

“Under the current proposals, individuals who have their personal data contained within these trusts would have no means by which they could make their views heard, or shape the decisions of these trusts.

Views those keen on Data Trusts seem keen to ignore.

When the Administrative Data Research Network was set up in 2013, a new infrastructure for “deidentified” data linkage, extensive public dialogue was carried across across the UK. It concluded in very similar findings as was apparent at dozens of care.data engagement events in 2014-15;

There is not public support for

  • “Creating large databases containing many variables/data from a large number of public sector sources,
  • Establishing greater permanency of datasets,
  • Allowing administrative data to be linked with business data, or
  • Linking of passively collected administrative data, in particular geo-location data”

The other ‘red-line’ for some participants was allowing “researchers for private companies to access data, either to deliver a public service or in order to make profit. Trust in private companies’ motivations were low.”

All of the above could be central to Data Trusts. All of the above highlight that in any new push to exploit personal data, the public must not be the last to know. And until all of the above are resolved, that social-license underpinning the work will always be missing.

Take the National Pupil Database (NPD) as a case study in a Data Trust done wrong.

It is a mega-database of over 20 other datasets. Raw data has been farmed out for years under terms and conditions to third parties, including users who hold an entire copy of the database, such as the somewhat secretive and unaccountable Fischer Family Trust, and others, who don’t answer to Freedom-of-Information, and whose terms are hidden under commercial confidentilaity. Buying and benchmarking data from schools and selling it back to some, profiling is hidden from parents and pupils, yet the FFT predictive risk scoring can shape a child’s school experience from age 2. They don’t really want to answer how staff tell if a child’s FFT profile and risk score predictions are accurate, or of they can spot errors or a wrong data input somewhere.

Even as the NPD moves towards risk reduction, its issues remain. When will children be told how data about them are used?

Is it any wonder that many people in the UK feel a resentment of institutions and orgs who feel entitled to exploit them, or nudge their behaviour, and a need to ‘take back control’?

It is naïve for those working in data policy and research to think that it does not apply to them.

We already have safe infrastructures in the UK for excellent data access. What users are missing, is the social license to do so.

Some of today’s data uses are ethically problematic.

No one should be talking about increasing access to public data, before delivering increased public understanding. Data users must get over their fear of what if the public found out.

If your data use being on the front pages would make you nervous, maybe it’s a clue you should be doing something differently. If you don’t trust the public would support it, then perhaps it doesn’t deserve to be trusted. Respect individuals’ dignity and human rights. Stop doing stupid things that undermine everything.

Build the social license that care.data was missing. Be honest. Respect our right to know, and right to object. Build them into a public UK data strategy to be understood and be proud of.


Part 1. Ethically problematic
Ethics is dissolving into little more than a buzzword. Can we find solutions underpinned by law, and ethics, and put the person first?

Part 2. Can Data Trusts be trustworthy?
As long as data users ignore data subjects rights, Data Trusts have no social license.



The Trouble with Boards at the Ministry of Magic

Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, has completed his investigation into the recent appointments to the Board of the Office for Students and published his report.

From the “Number 10 Googlers,”  that NUS affiliation — an interest in student union representation was seen as undesirable, to “undermining the policy goals” and what the SpAds supported, the whole report is worth a read.

Perception of the process

The concern that the Commissioner raises, over the harm  done to the public’s perception of the public appointments process means more needs done to fix these problems, before and after appointments.

This process reinforces what people think already. Jobs for the [white Oxford] boys, and yes-men.  And so what, why should I get involved anyway, and what can we hope to change?

Possibilities for improvement

What should the Department for Education (DfE) now offer and what should be required after the appointments process, for the OfS and other bodies, boards and groups et al?

  • Every board at the Department for Education, its name, aim, and members — internal and external — should be published.
  • Every board at the Department for Education should be required to publish its Terms of Appointment, and Terms of Reference.
  • Every board at the Department for Education should be required to publish agendas before meetings and meaningful meeting minutes promptly.

Why? Because there’s all sorts of boards around and their transparency is frankly non-existent. I know because I sit on one. Foolishly I did not make it a requirement to publish minutes before I agreed to join. But in a year it has only met twice, so you’ve not missed much. Who else sits where, on what policy, and why?

In another I used to sit on I got increasingly frustrated that the minutes were not reflective of the substance of discussion. This does the public a disservice twice over. The purpose of the boards look insipid and the evidence for what challenge they are intended to offer,  their very reason for being, is washed away. Show the public what’s hard, that there’s debate, that risks are analysed and balanced, and then decisions taken. Be open to scrutiny.

The public has a right to know

When scrutiny really matters, it is wrong — just as the Commissioner report reads — for any Department or body to try to hide the truth.

The purpose of transparency must be to hold to account and ensure checks-and-balances are upheld in a democratic system.

The DfE withdrew from a legal hearing scheduled at the First Tier Information Rights Tribunal last year a couple of weeks beforehand, and finally accepted an ICO decision notice in my favour. I had gone through a year of the Freedom-of-Information appeal process to get hold of the meeting minutes of the Department for Education Star Chamber Scrutiny Board, from November 2015.

It was the meeting in which I had been told members approved the collection of nationality and country of birth in the school census.

“The Star Chamber Scrutiny Board”.  Not out of Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic but appointed by the DfE.

It’s a board that mentions actively seeking members of certain teaching unions but omits others. It publishes no meeting minutes. Its terms of reference are 38 words long, and it was not told the whole truth before one of the most important and widely criticised decisions it ever made affecting the lives of millions of children across England and harm and division in the classroom.

Its annual report doesn’t mention the controversy at all.

After sixteen months, the DfE finally admitted it had kept the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board in the dark on at least one of the purposes of expanding the school census. And on its pre-existing active, related data policy passing pupil data over to the Home Office.

The minutes revealed the Board did not know anything about the data sharing agreement already in place between the DfE and Home Office or that “(once collected) nationality data” [para 15.2.6] was intended to share with the Border Force Casework Removals Team.

Truth that the DfE was forced to reveal, and only came out two years after the meeting, and a full year after the change in law.

If the truth, transparency, diversity of political opinion on boards are allowed to die so does democracy

I spoke to Board members in 2016. They were shocked to find out what the MOU purposes were for the new data,  and that regular data transfers had already begun without their knowledge, when they were asked to sign off the nationality data collection.

Their lack of concerns raised was given in written evidence to the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that it had been properly reviewed.

How trustworthy is anything that the Star Chamber now “approves” and our law making process to expand school data? How trustworthy is the Statutory Instrument scrutiny process?

“there was no need for DfE to discuss with SCSB the sharing of data with Home Office as: a.) none of the data being considered by the SCSB as part of the proposal supporting this SI has been, or will be, shared with any third-party (including other government departments);

[omits it “was planned to be”]

and b.) even if the data was to be shared externally, those decisions are outside the SCSB terms of reference.”

Outside the terms of reference that are 38 words long and should scrutinise but not too closely or reject on the basis of what exactly?

Not only is the public not being told the full truth about how these boards are created, and what their purpose is, it seems board members are not always told the full truth they deserve either.

Who is invited to the meeting, and who is left out? What reports are generated with what recommendations? What facts or opinion cannot be listened to, scrutinised and countered, that could be so damaging as to not even allow people to bring the truth to the table?

If the meeting minutes would be so controversial and damaging to making public policy by publishing them, then who the heck are these unelected people making such significant decisions and how? Are they qualified, are they independent, and are they accountable?

If alternately, what should be ‘independent’ boards, or panels, or meetings set up to offer scrutiny and challenge, are in fact being manipulated to manoeuvre policy and ready-made political opinions of the day,  it is a disaster for public engagement and democracy.

It should end with this ex- OfS hiring process at DfE, today.

The appointments process and the ongoing work by boards must have full transparency, if they are ever to be seen as trustworthy.

Statutory Instruments, the #DPBill and the growth of the Database State

First they came for the lists of lecturers. Did you speak out?

Last week Chris Heaton-Harris MP wrote to vice-chancellors to ask for a list of lecturers’ names and course content, “With particular reference to Brexit”.  Academics on social media spoke out in protest. There has been little reaction however, to a range of new laws that permit the incremental expansion of the database state on paper and in practice.

The government is building ever more sensitive lists of names and addresses, without oversight. They will have access to information about our bank accounts. They are using our admin data to create distress-by-design in a ‘hostile environment.’ They are writing laws that give away young people’s confidential data, ignoring new EU law that says children’s data merits special protections.

Earlier this year, Part 5 of the new Digital Economy Act reduced the data protection infrastructure between different government departments. This week, in discussion on the Codes of Practice, some local government data users were already asking whether safeguards can be further relaxed to permit increased access to civil registration data and use our identity data for more purposes.

Now in the Data Protection Bill, the government has included clauses in Schedule 2, to reduce our rights to question how our data are used and that will remove a right to redress where things go wrong.  Clause 15 designs-in open ended possibilities of Statutory Instruments for future change.

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution point out  on the report on the Bill, that the number and breadth of the delegated powers, are, “an increasingly common feature of legislation which, as we have repeatedly stated, causes considerable concern.”

Concern needs to translate into debate, better wording and safeguards to ensure Parliament maintains its role of scrutiny and where necessary constrains executive powers.

Take as case studies, three new Statutory Instruments on personal data  from pupils, students, and staff. They all permit more data to be extracted from individuals and to be sent to national level:

  • SI 807/2017 The Education (Information About Children in Alternative Provision) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2017
  • SI No. 886 The Education (Student Information) (Wales) Regulations 2017 (W. 214) and
  • SL(5)128 – The Education (Supply of Information about the School Workforce) (Wales) Regulations 2017

The SIs typically state “impact assessment has not been prepared for this Order as no impact on businesses or civil society organisations is foreseen. The impact on the public sector is minimal.” Privacy Impact Assessments are either not done, not published or refused via FOI.

Ever expanding national databases of names

Our data are not always used for the purposes we expect in practice, or what Ministers tell us they will be used for.

Last year the government added nationality to the school census in England, and snuck the change in law through Parliament in the summer holidays.  (SI 808/2016). Although the Department for Education conceded after public pressure, “These data will not be passed to the Home Office,” the intention was very real to hand over “Nationality (once collected)” for immigration purposes. The Department still hands over children’s names and addresses every month.

That SI should have been a warning, not a process model to repeat.

From January, thanks to yet another rushed law without debate, (SI 807/2017) teen pregnancy, young offender and mental health labels will be added to children’s records for life in England’s National Pupil Database. These are on a named basis, and highly sensitive. Data from the National Pupil Database, including special needs data (SEN) are passed on for a broad range of purposes to third parties, and are also used across government in Troubled Families, shared with National Citizen Service, and stored forever; on a named basis, all without pupils’ consent or parents’ knowledge. Without a change in policy, young offender and pregnancy, will be handed out too.

Our children’s privacy has been outsourced to third parties since 2012. Not anonymised data, but  identifiable and confidential pupil-level data is handed out to commercial companies, charities and press, hundreds of times a year, without consent.

Near-identical wording  that was used in 2012 to change the law in England, reappears in the new SI for student data in Wales.

The Wales government introduced regulations for a new student database of names, date of birth and ethnicity, home address including postcode, plus exam results. The third parties listed who will get given access to the data without asking for students’ consent, include the Student Loans Company and “persons who, for the purpose of promoting the education or well-being of students in Wales, require the information for that purpose”, in SI No. 886, the Education (Student Information) (Wales) Regulations 2017 (W. 214).

The consultation was conflated with destinations data, and while it all sounds for the right reasons, the SI is broad on purposes and prescribed persons. It received 10 responses.

Separately, a 2017 consultation on the staff data collection received 34 responses about building a national database of teachers, including names, date of birth, National Insurance numbers, ethnicity, disability, their level of Welsh language skills, training, salary and more. Unions and the Information Commissioner’s Office both asked basic questions in the consultation that remain unanswered, including who will have access. It’s now law thanks  to SL(5)128 – The Education (Supply of Information about the School Workforce) (Wales) Regulations 2017. The questions are open.

While I have been assured this weekend in writing that these data will not be used for commercial purposes or immigration enforcement, any meaningful safeguards are missing.

More failings on fairness

Where are the communications to staff, students and parents? What oversight will there be? Will a register of uses be published? And why does government get to decide without debate, that our fundamental right to privacy can be overwritten by a few lines of law? What protections will pupils, students and staff have in future how these data will be used and uses expanded for other things?

Scope creep is an ever present threat. In 2002 MPs were assured on the changes to the “Central Pupil Database”, that the Department for Education had no interest in the identity of individual pupils.

But come 2017 and the Department for Education has become the Department for Deportation.

Children’s names are used to match records in an agreement with the Home Office handing over up to 1,500 school pupils’ details a month. The plan was parliament and public should never know.

This is not what people expect or find reasonable. In 2015 UCAS had 37,000 students respond to an Applicant Data Survey. 62% of applicants think sharing their personal data for research is a good thing, and 64% see personal benefits in data sharing.  But over 90% of applicants say they should be asked first, regardless of whether their data is to be used for research, or other things. This SI takes away their right to control their data and their digital identity.

It’s not in young people’s best interests to be made more digitally disempowered and lose control over their digital identity. The GDPR requires data privacy by design. This approach should be binned.

Meanwhile, the Digital Economy Act codes of practice talk about fair and lawful processing as if it is a real process that actually happens.

That gap between words on paper, and reality, is a caredata style catastrophe across every sector of public data and government waiting to happen. When will the public be told how data are used?

Better data must be fairer and safer in the future

The new UK Data Protection Bill is in Parliament right now, and its wording will matter. Safe data, transparent use, and independent oversight are not empty slogans to sling into the debate.

They must shape practical safeguards to prevent there being no course of redress if you are slung into a Border Force van at dawn, your bank account is frozen, or you get a 30 days notice-to-leave letter all by mistake.

To ensure our public [personal] data are used well, we need to trust why they’re collected and see how they are used. But instead the government has drafted their own get-out-of-jail-free-card to remove all our data protection rights to know in the name of immigration investigation and enforcement, and other open ended public interest exemptions.

The pursuit of individuals and their rights under an anti-immigration rhetoric without evidence of narrow case need, in addition to all the immigration law we have, is not the public interest, but ideology.

If these exemptions becomes law, every one of us loses right to ask where our data came from, why it was used for that purpose, or course of redress.

The Digital Economy Act removed some of the infrastructure protections between Departments for datasharing. These clauses will remove our rights to know where and why that data has been passed around between them.

These lines are not just words on a page. They will have real effects on real people’s lives. These new databases are lists of names, and addresses, or attach labels to our identity that last a lifetime.

Even the advocates in favour of the Database State know that if we want to have good public services, their data use must be secure and trustworthy, and we have to be able to trust staff with our data.

As the Committee sits this week to review the bill line by line, the Lords must make sure common sense sees off the scattering of substantial public interest and immigration exemptions in the Data Protection Bill. Excessive exemptions need removed, not our rights.

Otherwise we can kiss goodbye to the UK as a world leader in tech that uses our personal data, or research that uses public data. Because if the safeguards are weak, the commercial players who get it wrong in trials of selling patient data,  or who try to skip around the regulatory landscape asking to be treated better than everyone else, and fail to comply with Data Protection law, or when government is driven to chasing children out of education, it doesn’t  just damage their reputation, or the potential of innovation for all, they damage public trust from everyone, and harm all data users.

Clause 15 leaves any future change open ended by Statutory Instrument. We can already see how SIs like these are used to create new national databases that can pop up at any time, without clear evidence of necessity, and without chance for proper scrutiny. We already see how data can be used, beyond reasonable expectations.

If we don’t speak out for our data privacy, the next time they want a list of names, they won’t need to ask. They’ll already know.


First they came …” is with reference to the poem written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984).