Like a marriage, the Internet is for better or worse

via Flickr © zigazou76  (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © zigazou76 (CC BY 2.0)

  • Mozilla Foundation says it might be getting better…
  • … even as the EU moves to construct a gigantic biometric database its 350 million people
  • So, will the advanced digital society be at the service of its citizens?
  • Or will it be used oppress and exploit them?

Here's a worrying juxtaposition. The Mozilla Foundation has just released its latest Internet Health Report which shows that we users are more and more aware (and angry) that increasingly centralised social media sites, unscrupulous advertisers, international organised crime rings and opportunistic scammers are behind the plethora of security breaches, privacy incursions and data thefts that plague the Internet.

The report arrives as the European Parliament votes to push for the construction and development of a massive, overarching biometric database of personal data from hundreds of millions of citizens of the member states of the European Union (EU). The reason and purpose? To "support law enforcement."

In a statement issued with the 2019 report, Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation (the not-for-profit organisation behind the popular "Firefox" web browser), writes, "Over the past year, people around the world have started to realise that widespread, laissez-faire sharing of our personal data, the massive growth and centralisation of the tech industry, and the misuse of online ads and social media has added up to a big mess, however, the good news is there are signs we are beginning to push the digital world in a better direction…we have not ‘fixed’ the problems, but it does feel like we’ve entered a new, sustained era of debate about what a healthy digital society should look like.”

The report notes that revelations such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal have galvanised the general public and consumer and digital rights organisations to demand the introduction of powerful data privacy security and personal privacy legislation and regulation with the powers to impose swingeing penalties of the crooks and miscreants who invade privacy and steal and misuse personal data.

It also remarks that the May 2018 introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe has had a profound effect  and that even the likes of Facebook, Google and others of their ilk are now somewhat more circumspect in regards to the safeguarding of user data while the general public is much better educated about and more aware of the importance and value of their personal information and what can happen if it goes astray or is stolen and compromised.

Mozilla also flags-up potentially dangerous trends such as the runaway and largely unregulated and un-policed introduction of Artificial Intelligence systems and applications and is pressing for the introduction of an ethical framework for AI. However, there is little mention of Machine Learning which many computer scientists regard as being potentially much more dangerous than Artificial Intelligence.

The report highlights three major issues that must be addressed if the world is to enjoy what Mozilla calls a "healthier Internet." They are: 1) a pressing requirement for better machine decision-making and, most importantly, oversight and control over who designs algorithms, and what data is actually fed into AI systems. 2) The rebuilding from the ground up of the online advertising sector to excise systems, services and apps that are designed for the surveillance and tracking of individuals and to foster addiction to particular sites such as gaming and betting. 3) Designing smart cities so that the primary purpose of the technologies and services deployed are to serve the interests of citizens first and businesses and governments second.

Again though, there is little attention paid to Machine Learning systems despite the fact that many of those that are actually operational are proving to be discriminatory because the algorithms they use reflect the (perhaps unconscious, possibly not) prejudices of the humans who developed them.

Meanwhile, the EU channels its inner Jekyll and Hyde

The Internet Health Report 2019 also shows that governments all over the globe continue to deploy repressive controls over Internet access and routinely breach human rights legislation by sequestering to themselves and their various ministries, departments, agencies and bodies the biometric data of their populations for use in ID systems.

This trend is commonplace but perhaps one of the most pernicious at the moment is the mandatory digital system that has been proposed by the Kenyan government (the National Integrated Identity Management System) which will contain massive amounts of data on every individual in the country, including DNA records and GPS location data, that will be available to "the authorities" at the touch of a button.

And so, back to the EU. It beggars belief that the same institutions that championed and then last year brought into law the very real benefits and protections that European citizens now enjoy under the GDPR, now want to introduce the "Common Identity Repository" (CIR) system that would, among other things, integrate security, immigration and border control systems in a central biometric database that will include facial recognition systems, fingerprints, blood groups, political affiliations and passport, health and family details.

The European Parliament legislated for the CIR on April 15. The proposal must now be approved by the EU Council, and, if it is passed, EU member states will have two years to provide incredibly detailed data on their citizens for inclusion in the new system.

The proposal is that three new bureaucratic entities will be introduced: the European Criminal Records System for Third Country Nationals, the Entry/Exit System,and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System. Once all the personal information is amassed and input and the system is operational the CIR will be the third biggest people-tracking database in the world, not far behind Numbers 1 and 2, the Chinese system and India's Aadhar "Face Authentication" card. It's all very Orwellian but, in Europe at least, there's no need to worry. The EU Parliament says “proper safeguards will be in place” for data protection and "appropriate access to information."

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