Post by John Weigelt, National Technology Officer at Microsoft Canada
The pandemic has changed our world in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined, pushing lives and businesses online in record-time. We’ve gone through two years of digital transformation in the space of two months, and while there have been some incredible innovations that have evolved as a result, it’s crucial to also take a step back to understand what this means in terms of digital security. The speed of innovation is pivotal, but it raises important questions that we need to be thoughtful and deliberate about when it comes to delivering tools that address privacy, security, and public safety.
Last week, Microsoft Canada collaborated with The Logic and prominent privacy and policy experts across Canada, CIFAR’s Rebecca Finlay and Carole Piovesan, cofounder of INQ Data Law, to host a virtual discussion about the importance of ensuring privacy and security needs of employees, customers and citizens in the development of new digital solutions.
We’ve all witnessed how technology like cloud and AI has played a pivotal role in the response to COVID-19, from eLearning and virtual medical visits, to advanced research to develop vaccines. As governments continue to recommend physical distancing in public spaces, it will certainly be relied upon to shape the “new normal”. The panel took place moments after the Prime Minister announced Canada’s contract tracing app, making the discussion timelier than ever. With more governments and businesses building solutions that leverage new technologies for testing, tracking and tracing, it’s imperative that we ensure privacy is protected.
First and foremost, privacy is a basic human right.
A key factor that was discussed during the panel was trust. How do we get Canadians to trust these digital solutions to protect us in a second wave? All participants agreed that the government and other organizations must be transparent with the use of the data they are collecting to build this trust.
At Microsoft we recently introduced seven privacy principles that we offer for governments, public health authorities, academics, employers and industries to consider as we collectively move forward into this next phase of tracking, tracing and testing, and using similar technologies developed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe the right technology can help governments serve their citizens and businesses reach their customers in new and innovative ways; however, organizations have a responsibility to ensure the appropriate guardrails are built-in. Any technology that gathers personal data should have policies governing those solutions that guarantee their limited and specific uses. Both Finlay and Piovesan agreed that in order for this technology to gain users trust, transparency is key. People need to be empowered with information that explains how their data will be collected and used and for how long.
Another important consideration when looking at these solutions is how bias might be introduced into data and how that may impact policy decisions. Steps should be taken to ensure data collected for tracing purposes is reflective of the whole of Canada including the elderly and other vulnerable populations who might not have access to a mobile phone. Canada was among first countries to announce a strategy about ethical uses of data and AI – Finlay consulted on the project – precisely for this reason. Finlay highlighted the need to constantly monitor the data to ensure we’re not unintentionally missing important populations and adjust accordingly to manage the ethical considerations.
Speed to market is also a consideration, especially to reduce the spread of the illness and to help jumpstart business. The global economy is facing enormous pressure to rebound, and businesses are seeking new ways to reach customers. Now is not the time to innovate by breaking things, rather a thoughtful and deliberate approach must be taken to deliver solutions that meet the high standards of transparency and accountability demanded before the pandemic.
The digital economy has accelerated by 10 years since March and that will have significant effect on the future of work and commerce. Piovesan cited research which predicts that 42% of jobs lost during COVID will not exist as the economy reopens. That has huge implications for not only the economy but also the lives of everyday Canadians, with technology becoming more important than ever. We need to ensure that we have independent guidance and oversight in place to guarantee that new technology benefits everyone. We must focus on upskilling and reskilling programs to arm people, especially the displaced or underemployed, with the most sought-after proficiencies so they can thrive in the digital economy.
It is undeniable that recovery from this pandemic needs to be swift, but it must also be thoughtful. It will take a collective effort from public and private organizations around the world to get it right – and the conversations need to happen now. Responding to crisis is a complex challenge and we may not have all the answers close at hand. That’s why this conversation is important. Thoughtful and deliberate approaches that address transparency, privacy, security and ethical considerations provide the foundation for trust in the technology that may be deployed to defeat the COVID-19 and stand ready to address future global crises.