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When Big Data meets Big Brother

15 JUNE, 2018

Kristian Odebjer
Swedish Chamber of
Commerce in Hong Kong
Lars-Åke Severin
Swedish Chamber of
Commerce in China

Dear Reader,

Supported by facial recognition techniques, a child abducted from his home in central China in his youth is re-united with his parents as an adult. Pedestrians are fined in real-time as they jaywalk across a busy intersection in Shenzhen. These are but two examples of the rapid technological transformation that are underway in China. Business is not unaffected by this change, and many industries will be unrecognisable if we go away and then come back to visit, say, 10 years down the line.

As artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and big data reshape the cores of our lives, there are at least three major stakeholders whose interests need to be balanced: individuals, corporations and government.

Arguably, the three principal markets in the world are weighing the interests of those stakeholders somewhat differently. The EU has just enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), legislation that is setting a new, higher, standard for the protection of personal data. The United States is still the home to the world’s leading internet companies, and has until now given these corporations relatively free reign in how they go about their business. China, on the other hand, has been very quick to put the power of cutting-edge technology at the disposal of the state.

In China today, we see government throwing significant resources at making the country an AI leader. This is done at a strategic level, which means that money may be poured into projects that lack an immediate application if it is deemed that they have a potential future benefit for China. The examples quoted above illustrate how China has already begun harnessing innovative breakthroughs to serve its desire for control and increased law and order.

We should of course be grateful for the incredible feats of technology that are being brought into our homes and phones, and onto our wrists, by entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley, Stockholm and Shenzhen. At the same time, we cannot afford to be naïve about the potential consequences of powerful technologies that might be used for purposes we are not even yet aware of.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica saga illustrates how problematic this can be. All signs indicate that even if governments have the tools to keep a “Big Brother” eye on its citizens, companies whose business models revolve around monetising user information will go about utilising such business models and our privacy rights are at risk without laws and a workable enforcement regime that keeps them in check.

Through the GDPR, Europe is attempting to assume global leadership when it comes to protection of personal data online. Business has had no choice but to comply (as evidenced by the endless stream of policy updates and requests for consent hitting our inboxes). A lesser known fact is that China is in the process of implementing its own set of laws and regulations in the same area.

It is likely that over time, Chinese voices demanding improved protection against illicit use of online data will grow louder. Will Beijing be prepared for this, and would the political leadership be prepared to sacrifice any of the control mechanisms it enjoys in order to placate those concerns?

At the end of the day, we as citizens need to ask ourselves whether the overall purpose of ever-more-powerful technology should primarily be about tackling age-old problems such as improving our environment, ridding the world of disease and fighting poverty, or harnessed for more sinister objectives such as exercising control over people to a degree previously unknown. Some commentators have argued that the latter outcome would mean “the end of good humanity”.

Also, will it be possible for the rest of the world to compete with China in this arena so long as China is able to allocate almost unlimited funds towards research into AI and related fields? Implementation of facial recognition is taking place today in benign circumstances (few people will complain about using the technology to catch jaywalkers). For now, little is said about other more controversial areas of its use.

The connected world will continue providing us with amazing opportunities to improve life for billions of people on the planet. Citizens, corporations and the governments of the world must work together to build trust and develop frameworks that ensure that mankind does not squander the promise of a brighter future delivered by technology.