Technology, in this day and age, knows you more than your friends and family do.
In some cases, tech knows you more than you know yourself — your likes and preferences, your deepest desires and possibly even traits that you have not yet discovered.
Emerging technologies allow tools to “read” your physical, mental and social behaviours then predict what you will do next. Beyond prediction, technological tools can also deceive and manipulate. The possibilities and the power are endless.
Oftentimes, financial motives are behind these developments. As per the modern day mantra, “Data is the new oil”, and we are the data to be mined — with or without our consent.
Revelations after revelations of sketchy business operations force unwitting users to believe they are being spied on from the comfort of their homes to the confined spaces in the aircraft.
In February, Google admitted to embedding built-in microphones into its Nest Secure home security solutions, two years after it was introduced. The feature was suspiciously omitted from the product’s tech specs and unsuspecting users eventually questioned if they had been spied on in those years. In the same month, Singapore Airlines confessed to installing a camera beneath the inflight entertainment screens on its aircraft. Both denied any ill intention and insisted that the cameras and microphones had not been activated.
As technology advances and converges, so do the functions of technology players in order for them to stay relevant. Facebook, for instance, started off as a social platform for friends and family to keep in touch. It has morphed, however, to become the main source of news for the majority of people globally.
As the presence and power of tech players become more pervasive, so do their responsibilities and the expectations of them to carry out their role diligently. Facebook, a social media tech giant, has been struggling to get out of the soup, vis-à-vis issues of disinformation, hate speech and pornography, among others.
Countries are pushing for social media platforms to play a more significant role in combating these issues, or they may be legally bound to do so. This follows the footsteps of Germany, which has tightened its law to regulate social media platforms to counter online abuse.
YouTube on the other hand, has been under fire for its recommendation algorithm that fuels the dissemination of disinformation, political extremism and the sexual exploitation of children. YouTube sets “engagement” as its primary business goal, and since 2012 decided that recommending videos is crucial to ensure viewers’ eyes are kept on the site. Perpetually hammered and accused of prioritising profits over the safety of users, it recently announced plans to reduce recommendations of “borderline content” and disinformation. The document also outlines YouTube’s aim to achieve, not just growth, but “responsible growth”. However, it continues to face criticism for only attending to the issues sporadically.
In Malaysia’s case, in our eagerness to catch up with the technological advancements of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), focus on the security and privacy aspects need to be synchronised. Understanding the dark side that technology could inflict, without entirely focusing on financial benefits is essential.
It is a joint responsibility of various parties.
FIRST, the role of government to ensure the right policies are in place at the desirable speed, aligned with the rapid growth of technology as well as enforcing these policies vigorously. We can be building flying cars, but regulations and standards need to first be in place. Further, Malaysia needs to localise policies accordingly and not blindly adopt on what works for other countries. Moreover, emphasis needs to be put into the responsibility that comes with technology applications for both users and creators, which includes domestic and international technology providers in Malaysia.
SECOND, creating citizen awareness towards the dangers of misusing technology and how we can protect ourselves, which includes practising good cyber hygiene. Citizens also need to be aware that at times, they are their own worst enemy, and that technology only intensifies it. Such is the case of disinformation for instance, where human biases that react to seditious posts will generate quick engagements, resulting in faster dissemination of toxic videos and “bad virality”.
THIRD, the role of technology players. Regardless of whether they are pursuing the areas of Internet of Things, artificial intelligence or Big Data Analytics, which could be applied in an array of sectors, the responsibility to protect users must be embedded.
Beyond that, technology experts themselves need to recognise that the power to navigate technological growth is in their hands. Unfortunately, being a bad actor has tempted many, and eerily, technology is a good servant to an evil master.
The writer is senior analyst, Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, 13 April 2019