Darren Jones and Lee Rowley: Technology is changing the rules of our society. We politicians need to catch up before it's too late

Posted On: 
9th November 2018

Labour’s Darren Jones and Conservative Lee Rowley discuss the launch of a data and technology ethics inquiry aimed at ensuring that the politicians of the Fourth Industrial Revolution era remain fit for purpose

"Technology is changing our lives at speeds never experienced before. The speed of change isn’t being matched by the speed of Parliament," Lee Rowley and Darren Jones write

Your children are being taught in school via a Virtual Reality headset. The police are deciding whether to respond to your 999 call based on the decision of an algorithm. Your GP knows how often you go to the gym. And your autonomous vehicle just ran over your neighbour’s cat.

Technology is changing our lives at speeds never experienced before. Yet with each new breakthrough comes a trade-off. How do we protect our traditional rights in a world with cutting edge technology? Who should be liable when things go wrong? Who has the back of consumers when things go wrong with a service or product assumed to make our lives easier to live? And what role should the state have in this changing world?

The use of data by individuals, groups and society as a whole is increasing. Technology and data have fundamentally changed and continue to change the way we live including the ways in which we work, socialise, shop, access public services and store information. The speed of change isn’t being matched by the speed of Parliament.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution heralding a greater uptake in artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things, we see the tremendous potential for progress that advancements in these fields can offer. However, it cannot be taken for granted that the data we provide and technology we utilise will always be used responsibly, or that organisations will manage associated risks such as protecting personal data.

That’s why we are delighted to announce a new Inquiry into Data and Technology Ethics as part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Data Analytics. We want to ensure that parliamentarians have a grasp of the technology trends taking place around us and the associated risks. We want to test the debates between innovators and campaigners to understand where the trade-offs should rest. And we want to understand whether our laws are fit for purpose when something goes wrong.

Now more than ever it is vital that data and technology are properly regulated to ensure people have trust in organisations they share data with and that organisations understand their responsibilities when accessing data and releasing technology.

The inquiry will examine issues of trust and privacy, considering the trade-offs between privacy and progress. We will focus on healthcare, transport, education and policing as areas which demonstrate the huge potential of data and technology but also some of the greatest ethical risks, including algorithmic biases around security, privacy, surveillance, fraud and exploitation.

In healthcare, we’ll examine how new medical treatments and medicines may result from ‘mining’ NHS data. How can you utilise this potential whilst protecting highly sensitive personal medical data and the rights of the individual? Should the NHS be offering biotechnology, health tracking and DNA screening services to prevent illness, and what focus should it have on new versus traditional means of keeping us well?

Another likely road-bump comes in the form of self-driving vehicles. This leap forward in technology has huge social and safety benefits, yet how can you hold someone liable when something goes wrong in a system that uses algorithms?

In education and policing, the use of predictive analytics to improve outcomes throws up more questions about the ethical use of data. For universities and colleges, institutions can significantly improve the life outcomes of their students by targeting those with specific needs or who may be about to drop out of a course. However, does monitoring and analysing student attendance, library use, internet browsing and other behaviour count as undue surveillance?

Similarly, police services around the country could both utilise predictive analytics in their fight against organised crime and terrorism. By analysing databases of crimes and the individuals investigated, they could better distribute resources and plan more efficiently. But what are the ethical ramifications of this? How will data be collected and processed, and where do the limits of acceptable behaviour by both people and algorithms lie in this space?

Many people look at politicians and parliaments and wonder if, in this new technology age, we’re fit for purpose. And in place of legislators making laws, private companies are defining the rules we live to in a global setting. If we don’t engage with these considerations now, with the advances in data and technology happening all around us, we risk leaving it too late. This Data and Technology Ethics inquiry will take on this challenge and look at all these questions over the coming months.   

Darren Jones is Labour MP for Bristol North West and Lee Rowley is Conservative MP for North East Derbyshire