Care or control? Discussions about use of public data have intensified based on the draft legislation about linkage of data files in order to e.g. being able to detect vulnerable children at an early stage. The IT industry is responsible for taking part in the discussions, and code of fair information practice must be brought up for discussion among the politicians, says CEO of Dansk IT and former minister, Rikke Hvilshøj, in this interview.
Is use of data in the public sector the road to better welfare solutions or a problematic surveillance society? Politicians, experts and specialists are discussing this intensively. IT companies are able to deliver the technical infrastructure to data analysis, but what is their part in this debate?
At the conference ‘Offentlig Digitalisering’ (Public Digitization) in Aarhus, Denmark, I had a word with CEO of the interest group Dansk IT (Danish IT) , former Minister for Refugees, Immigrants and Integration, Rikke Hvilshøj. She is worried about the Danes’ continued trust in public authorities if so-called ‘personal profiling’ of private individuals through data analysis is permitted.
How do you see the role of IT companies in this discussion, and why is it intensifying just now?
Rikke Hvilshøj: The companies must take on a very active role! You possess important knowledge and have been working with this for decades, meaning that Dansk IT’s members, companies and individuals who have professional knowledge must bring this knowledge into play. There is a need for a detailed public debate because the consequences are now so extensive, and very close digital profilings of individuals can be done. This has some societal consequences that we must be aware of. We must collaborate with people with professional knowledge, ethical and maybe philosophical views and of course political views as well.
The public issues that we see now show that we are still at the elementary stage. No one does anything on purpose, but we have simply not been brought up and trained to understand the power of data. This is new information for the majority of the population and workforce.
In his presentation at the conference, (now former, ed.) Danish Minister of Education and Research Søren Pind underlined the importance of ensuring that the public, which may be a challenge. Have we had enough discussions about how we can reap the benefits and get a new way of thinking of welfare and a new way of contributing with resources to the areas that need them?
For many years, focus was on everything that technology could simplify. I am not saying that those days are over, but we do have a more data-ethical dimension in the discussions now. The challenge is to ensure the correct balance between using all opportunities and advantages that technology and digitalization can give us, however, at the same time making sure that the values we appreciate – democracy and the legal sector – still exist in the new technological world. We should not forget the advantages: a much better and individualized service for citizens by using data; however, we must take the respect for the individual into account.
In Gladsaxe Municipality, they have discussed the use of data to extend relief to vulnerable children, and for decades, we have been searching for the right methods in this respect. Linkage of data may be the method, but as regards use of data, it is crucial for me and for Dansk IT that we continue our discussions about the consequences of a specific initiative. This can only be done by collecting data from far more citizens than the ones you search for. And what is their legal position? How must their data be used and kept? And how about the ones we want to extend relief to – will their data haunt them for the rest of their lives? We must make a decision.
Who should be the decision-maker?
Primarily the politicians! My experience is that instead, often decisions are left to civil servants. Of course, they have an important role, but important political and democratic discussions are missing. I call for responsibility among the politicians. However, everybody who has the knowledge in this field – as for instance you in SAS Institute – should contribute and consider this aspect when presenting your solutions.
I believe that code of fair information practice will become a competitive parameter in the future, and that the companies that are thinking of drawing a line, will perform well. Ethics cannot be legislated on, and it would be terrible if we thought that legislation would define the framework. We have to act in a grey zone that is not regulated by law, but which is how we want to act with respect to each other.
Companies must flaunt it, relate to it and make their own code of fair information practice. LEGO has done that on their websites for children and adolescents, where they are advised not to use their real names in profiles, and it is stated clearly that user data is not kept.
In order to make sure that in the future, our data is still valuable, we have to be transparent. Rikke Hvilshøj CEO Danish IT
People talk a lot about distrust and freedom of choice and about how we must act as citizens. As Søren Pind has said, we uncritically feed Facebook with personal information, and in apps, we give access to camera and contact details. But if the local government asks for specific information, we may say ‘hands off my private sphere’. How can we as an industry speed up this discussion towards the citizens?
Transparency is the answer! I would prefer a government whose ambition was that every time we develop new IT systems, the purpose should be to give the citizens transparency and knowledge of how their data is used. In Denmark, we have high confidence in our authorities, knowing that they have much data on us. Overall, we are confident with that. But if our data is used in a way that we were not prepared for, we are sceptical. I do not think that people will have a problem with this as long as they know how data is used. But if people think they submit an anonymous employee satisfaction survey, and unexpectedly, the information is used to profiling their children, people doubt if they should participate at all. The pattern of behaviour will change. People will start telling lies, if they are not confident in the way data is used, which means that data is useless.
If in the future, we must guarantee that our data is valuable, we have to be transparent. In this way, I think that many Danes will be confident in providing the central government with their data rather than providing it to Google, Facebook and others.