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Public becoming more aware of privacy abuses and unethical tech

Widespread abuses of privacy, biometric information and artificial intelligence mean the internet is in poor health, but growing popular awareness of its problems gives some cause for hope, says the Mozilla Foundation

Increasing levels of government censorship, more widespread abuses of biometric information and unethical use of artificial intelligence (AI) to amplify systemic injustices are all making the internet a more dangerous and unhealthy place to spend time, but there are encouraging signs of growing movements seeking to redress the imbalance.

That is according to the Mozilla Foundation – the non-profit behind web browser Firefox – which has just released its latest Internet health report for 2019, highlighting some disturbing trends. However, it also revealed how more people are now aware of these and fighting back more than ever before.

“Over the past year, people around the world have started to realise that widespread, laissez-faire sharing of our personal data, the massive growth and centralisation of the tech industry, and the misuse of online ads and social media has added up to a big mess,” said Mark Surman, executive director of The Mozilla Foundation.

“The good news is there are signs we are beginning to push the digital world in a better direction – from Europe stepping up efforts to thwart disinformation ahead of the EU [European Union] elections to tech companies making ads more transparent. We have not ‘fixed’ the problems, but it does feel like we’ve entered a new, sustained era of debate about what a healthy digital society should look like.”

The 2019 report observed more mainstream calls for privacy – much of them emanating from increased public awareness that came in part thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and in part thanks to enforcement of the GDPR regulations. Related to this, it also noted people were asking more questions about the impact of ‘big tech’, the eight or so companies such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft that between them control much of the internet.

The Foundation also noted a growing movement to build more responsible AI. As the flaws with current systems become more obvious, more technologists and activists are speaking up, with initiatives such as the Safe Face Pledge, which encourages the development of ethical facial recognition technology, growing in prominence.

Growing public awareness of the problems faced by the internet did not, however, mean these problems were going away. The foundation said it recorded 188 documented internet shutdowns around the world during 2018, as governments seek to try to restrict internet access. It also highlighted a new form of repression, that of slowing down the internet to the extent that services become so slow that frustrated users are driven offline.

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Governments around the world are also finding new ways to overreach themselves by asserting inappropriate levels of control over the biometric information of citizens for digital ID programmes, such as in Kenya, where human rights groups have taken the government to court over the soon-to-be-mandatory National Integrated Identity Management System, which captures information such as DNA and GPS location.

Elsewhere, the foundation reported, badly designed AI systems are being trained and deployed at a breakneck pace that fails to account for potential harms, leading to IT systems that discriminate against women or people of colour, for example.

The report also identified three issues presenting both challenges and opportunities to building a healthier internet. These are the need for better machine decision making in terms of who designs algorithms, and what data AI systems are fed; rebuilding the online ad economy to design out surveillance and addiction; and ensuring smart cities are designed in such a way that technology serves the good of human citizens ahead of business.

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