technology

Curran: Google, Facebook ‘experimenting’ on us

The Minister in charge of digital services believes big tech companies such as Google and Facebook are conducting “extraordinary experiments on our entire civilisation”.

Clare Curran, who is also responsible for digital media and open government, made the remarks at a speech in Wellington on Wednesday.

Addressing the All-of-Government NZ Digital Transformation Conference, Curran warned that the collection of big data could bring a lot of benefits, but also plenty of risks for citizens.

“Facebook, Google are not the gentle giants they make out to be, they are the collectors of vast amounts of data that is used with sometimes dubious permissions to conduct extraordinary experiments on our whole civilisation.

“In our own country (they're) sparking disruption of our internal media sectors with almost no accountability. This is not new, this is being debated in almost every country in the world at the moment. These are big, really important issues.”

Curran said it was up to governments across the world to provide leadership and ensure human rights were protected in the digital age.

She cited the development of a robust digital rights framework as key to that, with New Zealand to lead the charge.

A global digital rights working group, made up of the UK, Israel, South Korea, Canada, Estonia and Uruguay alongside New Zealand, met earlier this year and agreed for New Zealand to lead the work in creating the multi-national framework.

Alongside this, last week Curran announced an “urgent” review of how algorithms are being used by government departments in New Zealand.

“Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled between Senate inquiries to answer questions about just what exactly his entity is doing with people’s data. I think it’s time that nations really came together and stood up and said people’s privacy really matters.”

These ranged from computer models at the Ministry of Health that ensured donated organs saved lives to modelling by the New Zealand Transport Association on road safety.

“I’m working with my ministerial colleagues and let me assure you there’s a number that are very interested in this and expressing some concerns.”

Speaking to Newsroom after her speech, Curran said there was great concern within the seven countries that made up the digital nations group about how the big tech companies were acting and how human rights could be protected.

“We’re very aware that people are becoming more concerned about how their data is being used, it’s why I mentioned Facebook and Google today … I think we’re being experimented on.

“While we tick the box that says you can access my contacts or whatever, Facebook knows who exactly you are making your phone calls to and that shows up when you download your Facebook data and who you’ve texted and who has texted you. It feels very invasive to the normal person but it’s very complicated, people don’t have time to think about these things and it’s why I talked a lot about trust and confidence and I think Government has to show leadership on this.”

Curran said she had met with Facebook and Google who had “lots of explanations” about what they were doing and systems they had in place, but she remained unconvinced.

It was becoming evident just how much data they held and that some of the ways they were using it did not sit well with the public.

“Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled between Senate inquiries to answer questions about just what exactly his entity is doing with people’s data. I think it’s time that nations really came together and stood up and said people’s privacy really matters.”

New AI centre asked to look at legal and ethical issues

Artificial intelligence was a regular topic of discussion at the conference, both for its potential benefits and limitations.

Following her speech, Curran headed down to Dunedin to officially open the University of Otago’s Artificial Intelligence and Public Policy Centre.

The centre will explore policy options for managing the introduction of AI with an aim to maximise their benefits and minimise potential harms.

Curran said the Government had asked it to specifically look for potential legal and regulatory gaps in New Zealand that could appear as AI became more prevalent.

It follows the release of a report outlining the challenges AI could pose to the country.

Curran said New Zealand was lagging behind other countries in preparing for ethical challenges it would face from the technology and needed to better prepare.

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