Human Rights and Digital Privacy: A socially Engaged Buddhist Reflection on Surveillence

Words by KV Soon (Vidyananda) | Dexter Cohen Bohn, Editor

When we talk about human rights we must consider the fact that privacy is an important element. More so in the digital environment where data linked to us as individuals is easily available on self-input social media platforms as well as other services such as banks, telcos or even online book shops and grocery stalls that capture our data through purchases online interactions.

Individually-linked data can also be captured or generated through public sources, often without consent. A very good example of this would be biometric data captured through surveillance cameras installed at public locations by municiple governments, the police or other security agencies. Such cameras can also be installed by private individuals or organizations on private property pointing at public locations.

It is clear that from the human rights perspective, this situation may have negative consequences as articulated in this article on Marseille from MIT Tech Review and many other published research and commentaries.

As socially engaged Buddhists we need to be cognizant of such developments as there will be, if not yet already, an impact on the work we are doing with various communities across the world. To effectively respond to the situation, we need to prepare ourselves, understand and develop dynamic strategies.

Surveillence cameras in Marseille, France. Photo: GABRIELLE VOINOT

Here are some reflections:

The problem will not go away. For better or worse, technology will continue to be used to solve social issues and problems. In this case, the deployment of cameras and other surveillance tools along with big data applications and artificial intelligence will continue to expand. Slowing such deployment is not a solution. The tech companies and other key players in the industry will continue to this highly profitable agenda.

New geopolitical actors have emerged. Big tech companies control enourmous amounts of wealth and have extensive cross-border reach, in recent years we have seen how they are now dominant actors in the geo-political arena. Strategies to positively and effectively engage with these tech companies will be essential to fostering harmony in society, online and offline.

Implementation must be monitored. We will need to develop capacities and the initiative to skillfully intervene in the implementation process. Efforts need to be directed toward pushing for better governance to frame the design, procurement and implementation processes without significantly disrupting the rollout of new technology. The important thing is to be included in the process of implementation to assess and drive outcomes for postive impact of new projects.

Data governance is key. This is the heart of all digital activities. Data, especially those that link to personal identity must have strong governance models in place to mitigate abusive and/or extractive practices which may compromise privacy and personal safety. Where AI is concerned, a strong overview is needed to avoid the controlled sharing of data that AI – generate for the profit of a small number of companies. More importantly, our personal data should not be collected or used without consent for reasons of security and economic recovery.

Successful models are available. Limited success in the USA, such as San Diego, shows that intervening to wrestle control for privacy is possible. However, such success may be limited as the US has institutitionalized strong fundamentals of governance and the rule of law. This cannot be said for many other countries which have less robust governance systems in place

Don’t forget: this is an evolutionary and dynamic situation. The world of digital development is changing rapidly as technology continues to evolve and “disrupt” the way we work, play and live. Engagement strategies need to take this shifting context into account and be dynamic as well.

We intend to discuss these topics in greater depth during the Digital Bodhisattva Workshops at the upcoming INEB conference in South Korea later this year.

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