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IBM Policy Lab Live: A Responsible Tech Approach to the COVID Pandemic

Watch a replay of the Policy Lab discussion

As governments, companies and researchers explore new ways of using technology to slow the spread of COVID-19 by supporting social distancing, contact tracing and temperature monitoring, they are engaged in a parallel conversation: How to ensure privacy, trust and data protection?

This intensifying conversation was the topic of an IBM Policy Lab Live virtual event on July 23, titled “Responsibility in Tech’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic” and moderated by Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

Even as technology holds the promise of keeping people healthier and safer in the face of the deadly virus, privacy and trust remain paramount, agreed the panelists: Christina Montgomery, IBM’s Chief Privacy Officer; Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who has represented Eastern Washington state in Congress since 2004 and currently serves as Ranking Member on the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee; and Lucrezia Busa, who serves in the cabinet of the European Commissioner for Justice, where her portfolio includes the digital agenda, artificial intelligence and data protection.

“We have the potential to solve so many massive societal problems with technology, but if we put aside issues like privacy to address the pandemic, we’re not doing it the right way,” Montgomery noted. “At IBM, we really think the biggest issues are not about widgets or algorithms, but rather critical themes around trust and responsibility and, in particular, inclusiveness and putting humans at the center of technology deployment.”

Without Trust, Tech Won’t Be Adopted

Since the pandemic began, the panelists noted, technology has figured more prominently into people’s work and personal lives than ever before. When much of the world went into lockdown mode, technology kept people connected to work, school, family, friends and critical healthcare services. As companies and governments consider new solutions for helping societies reopen as quickly and safely as possible, the role of technology will become even more central.

“I continue to believe that new technologies and innovations are going to be the key to ending this coronavirus pandemic, to saving lives, to starting our economy again,” McMorris Rodgers said. “You think about medical care, telehealth, partnering with the government and analyzing the virus using supercomputers—our tech companies have really been at the forefront of our response, both from a health and an economic perspective.”

To be effective, though, new solutions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus must be widely embraced. If people don’t trust that their civil liberties and personal information will be protected, even the most brilliantly conceived products will be of little value.

Sensitive data “is at the heart of so many of the solutions to address the global pandemic,” Montgomery observed. “If society doesn’t trust in these technologies, they are not going to use them. If they don’t use them, innovation is going to be hampered, because people won’t be developing them. It’s a slippery slope.”

Busa described the pandemic as “a defining moment for the relationship between technology and fundamental rights.” As the virus began to spread in Europe, she said, there was a great deal of discussion about whether societies would have to choose between the right to privacy, on the one hand, and the use of technology to track and stop the spread, on the other.

The distinction is false, Busa suggested, explaining, “Fundamental rights and privacy can be completely, fully part of the solutions and the tools that are put in place to solve the pandemic.” Busa quoted the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, as saying, “We entered this crisis as a democracy, and we should get out as a democracy.”

Restricting Data Use to Establish Trust

Panelists discussed the role of governments and companies in establishing guidelines for how data can be used. In the European Union, for example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) addresses issues of data protection and privacy. In the United States, by contrast, there is no corresponding federal law.

“Privacy needs to be one of those must-pass bills,” said McMorris Rodgers. “In the United States we have this patchwork of laws that’s being developed at the state level, and that’s going to create more confusion, both for consumers and for businesses.”

In the absence of a federal privacy law, companies are developing their own standards. Montgomery outlined how IBM’s own longstanding Trust and Transparency Principles have been supplemented with a new set of guardrails for COVID-19 technologies. These guardrails mandate that IBM’s solutions be designed and deployed with privacy and security built in, for example, and tightly restrict what data can be collected and how it can be used. IBM’s AI Ethics Board, which Montgomery co-chairs, abides by these guardrails when evaluating new projects and opportunities.

The IBM Policy Lab, IBM’s internal policy think tank, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. It provides a global forum for convening and engaging policymakers, academics, civil society and others, to advance a policy vision that promotes the benefits of innovation, while ensuring trust in a world being constantly reshaped by data. The July 23 livestream was the first in a series of “IBM Policy Lab Live” discussions, in which experts will discuss the most pressing issues of the day, and the role that policy can play in maximizing the promises and addressing the challenges posed by new technologies.

Turner Lee, the panel moderator, said the Brookings Institution was “excited to see what type of research, what type of policies, what type of technical experimentation comes out from the Policy Lab.”

“This is a year of pandemics, possibilities and priorities,” she said. “As we try to figure out ways to mitigate this pandemic both domestically and globally, tech has stepped in.”


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