Digital threats, the divide, and how to tackle them

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by: David Adamson / GSMA

BARCELONA — United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed urged the development and digital communities to address the potential threats posed by data and technology or risk technology overpowering rather than empowering people.

“If we don’t better address these challenges, if we leave current negative trends inadequately attended to, we risk heading into a world where the convenience brought to many by technological progress, will be accompanied by societies that are more polarized, less democratic, and with widening inequalities,” Mohammed said in her keynote address at this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.

Cyberattacks, cybercrime, a new realm for interstate conflict, the lack of clarity on how to apply laws around the digital domain, and the differing capacity among states to protect their citizens and companies are just some of the potential threats of increased use of data and technology. Others include the possibility of creating a digital divide and further centralizing economic and political power.

Some 5 billion people — two-thirds of the population — currently have access to a mobile phone, almost 4.4 billion people actively use the internet globally, and 3.5 billion use social media. The emergence and implementation of 5G, artificial intelligence, and blockchain are currently taking digital use one step further.

Mohammed said that efforts to address the threats need to be concentrated in four key areas. The first is to create multistakeholder, decentralized cooperation mechanisms to steer change for good. That means formulating policy that’s faster, more nimble, and driven by a multitude of people and organizations to address issues such as data privacy, data sharing, and data misuse.

“The difficulty of setting policy, of determining standards and, where necessary, of creating norms for the digital realm should not distract us from its fundamental necessity,” said Mohammed. “We can already see how our values, how our human rights, how our ethical standards can be undermined both through malicious use and unintended consequences.”

But data experts warned that policy needs to be implemented in a practical manner and in keeping with the constantly evolving nature of developing technologies while taking care not to exacerbate the already widening digital divide.

“Thinking about policy and policy solutions that are very targeted to address the digital divide and really change the picture of inclusion is key,” said Sonia Jorge, executive director of Alliance for Affordable Internet and head of the digital inclusion program at the World Wide Web Foundation.

“You just need leaders that are not only interested in having a good policy framework in place, but who actually implement it. Unless you have the kind of leadership that totally understands and focuses on it, it can be hard and take forever,” she said. She pointed to Ghana, Rwanda, Malaysia, and Colombia as examples of how to implement policy.

When it comes to specific mechanisms around data sharing rights and how realistic establishing them might be, it’s also partly about technology and auditability, added Roger Taylor, chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation — an advisory body set up by the U.K. government and led by an independent board of expert members to investigate and advise on how to maximize the benefits of data-enabled technologies. “But it’s also partly about what kinds of organizations, mechanisms, and laws we need to set the boundaries and make sure what is implemented in technology is in line with what [the] public would expect.”

Mohammed said it was vital to ensure the inclusivity of the spread of digital technology. That means the rollout of high-quality networks regardless of income or geography, new technology available to all, and supporting innovators in showing how connectivity can further development.

“The companies that recognize the benefits of driving social good will be rewarded in the marketplace — many in the next generation of customers expect it and our planet desperately needs it,” Mohammed said.

According to Jorge, the sector knows what it needs to do, but not enough countries and organizations are doing it. “There is far too much duplication, far too much hype around sometimes the newest technology when the basics are not even taken care of within our sector.”

To remedy this, she highlighted the importance of having the private sector and international organizations focused on investing in digital correctly and cost-effectively, while making sure they're not duplicating infrastructure.

The third focus Mohammed cited was the need to repurpose current education systems. Incorporating aspects such as science; technology; engineering and mathematics; software coding; and the interface of ethics and science could enhance individuals’ digital intelligence.

Taylor agreed that including data ethics within education sounded like a good step, but warned that whenever the world is faced by a problem, the answer seems to be “getting everyone much more up to speed.”

“We are moving into a data-driven world and every citizen is going to have to have some degree of understanding of what that means. The trouble is everybody's got loads of other stuff to do and if they all had to learn about all the problems the policymakers think they should learn about in order for the world to be a better place, they wouldn’t have any time to do anything else, so we have to be realistic about processes of education,” he said.

He suggested rather than having data ethics be taught in the classroom, it would be more realistic and practical for individuals to learn as they go. For that to be possible, there would need to be more pressure on data systems to build mechanisms into their platforms that help people understand how this application is making decisions. “While education is an important part of it, what is equally important is what it is actually like to interact with these systems.”

Finally, Mohammed called for a greater need to talk amongst one another and reflect across disciplines.

“We are beginning to learn we need to take a step back,” she said, adding that it’s easy to get carried away by the current pace of change and that we must bring all sectors together to balance unintended negative consequences of data.

“Do we want to have technology that enables an equitable, peaceful, and just society, or will we live in a world where technology has enabled the loss of privacy, more autocratic control, more conflict, and more inequality?”

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.