Preserving democracy in a state of surveillance

At the Ashoka Changemaker Summit, social entrepreneurs talk tech, transparency, and human rights

Ashoka
Changemakers

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Ashoka Fellow Gemma Galdon, Courtesy of Eticas Consulting

Thanks to technological breakthroughs, more data is available than ever. At any given moment, data is collected everywhere from workplaces, to neighborhoods, to digital platforms. But what happens when most of that data sits in the hands of companies, governments, and even criminal enterprises? Does increased surveillance protect people’s safety, or threaten it?

Social entrepreneurs are working towards a world where our technologies strengthen — not undermine — individuals’ rights to privacy and societal wellbeing. At the Ashoka Changemaker Summit, Konstanze Frischen, Ashoka’s global Tech & Humanity lead, speaks with Paul Radu, co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Gemma Galdon, founder of Eticas Consulting, and Albert Fox Cahn, co-founder of Stop Spying. They replace false assumptions about technology with real solutions that engage every player.

Here are our highlights.

Everyone an investigator

Behind investigations like the Panama Papers is the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a global network of reporters that partners with advocacy groups. Their latest Pegasus investigation uncovered the illegal use of spyware against citizens, creating rippling repercussions around the world. They aim to create a transparent society — one where investigative reporting isn’t even needed, where anyone can investigate. Paul tells us more:

A surveillance crisis is galvanizing change

In New York, you’re never alone — there are over 15,000 surveillance cameras in the city center. The law is far behind in protecting citizens’ rights to privacy, and over-policed communities have had enough. Albert Fox Cahn, co-founder of Stop Spying, works in New York and elsewhere to ensure the law gets updated via legislation and litigation, and to keep law enforcement from mass-surveilling citizens.

The organization’s latest win: passing the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which brings much-needed civilian review to New York Police Department policies around how data is collected and used.

Time to audit our algorithms

While Albert and Paul target bad actors, Gemma works with civil organizations, companies, and governments that don’t fully understand the damage their tech does. In banking, for example, women are underrepresented in databases because until recently, the financial representative of the family has been the man. Because men are overrepresented, algorithms based on patterns of the past give more and better credit to men.

Gemma developed the algorithmic audit framework to expose the discrimination built into tech and create a market for trustworthy AI. The only way to fix discriminatory algorithms? Understand the human societies they’re impacting, Gemma says. She explains more:

In some cases, technologies are irredeemable

Even if we fix algorithms — like the ones used in facial recognition, for example — will that solve the problem of unjust surveillance? Improving the technology could make the situation worse, Albert argues, by giving bad actors even more accurate and valuable data. To protect our privacy and safety, certain use cases, a technology doesn’t need to be improved — it just shouldn’t be used in the first place.

Technology reproduces inequality

Solving social problems is not about having the data, it’s also about having the political will to take action, Gemma argues. Technology incorporates “all the social dynamics of the real world.” For example, as tech tools play a larger role in hiring and firing at the workplace, they reinforce the power of the employer. To make better decisions, we don’t need to just collect the data, we need to fix the systems.

Follow the money…and power

OCCRP’s reporters pay special attention to the intersection of money and power. Cryptocurrency is one example: it’s hard to monitor, and there’s a gap between the tech tools that criminals and government can access, and the ability of journalists and activists to track transactions. Technology amplifies both good and bad intentions.

About the Ashoka Changemaker Summit

The Changemaker Summit “A New Togetherness” is Ashoka’s yearly global gathering. It connects a vast community of social innovators and leaders from business and philanthropy to celebrate inspiring solutions, learn, and collaborate towards systemic change. Tune in every Thursday through December for conversations on Planet and Climate, Equity, and more. The culminating event on December 2 will be hosted in Turin, Italy. More information at https://acms.ashoka.org/

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Ashoka
Changemakers

We bring together social entrepreneurs, educators, businesses, parents & youth to support a world in which everyone is equipped & empowered to be a changemaker.