Privacy issues pervade Digital Summit Dublin

Taoiseach notes challenges in regulating tech sector without stifling innovation

The Digital Summit Dublin, now in its third year, is probably one of the more interesting Irish technology gatherings you've never heard of. With high-profile speakers including Kent Walker, senior vice-president for global affairs and chief legal officer at Google, Ann Johnson, corporate vice-president of cybersecurity at Microsoft, and Meg Chang, public policy manager for elections at Facebook, it looks at technology through the lenses of politics, government and the economy.

The reason the conversations held last Friday are important is that they tackle hot-button issues such as ethics in artificial intelligence (AI), online disinformation and data privacy. And, crucially, the purpose of the summit, said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in his opening address, is that these conversations will be reported back to Government to "help shape our future actions and develop our policies".

There were many issues to cover and Varadkar touched upon several including the challenges around regulating the technology sector without stifling innovation: “Governments are increasingly caught between the Scylla of greater demands for regulation of technology and the Charybdis of not wanting to stifle innovation and commerce.”

He added: “This kind of debate is increasingly evident on a European level and we must find a way of charting the correct course.”


Varadkar used his opening address to reflect on how current technologies such as robotic surgery and driverless cars were in the realm of science fiction a few years ago. There is a need to “protect all that is good and counteract all that is bad,” he declared, adding that new questions are being raised around the development and applications of AI and machine learning: “Who is in control, will there be bias, how do we ensure accountability?”

“The basic fundamental question is how do we ensure technological developments serve people and contribute to our well-being? That is what this summit is all about: how to achieve best outcomes for all of society.”

Job security in the face of AI and automation was another concern. In a session on European responses to and global challenges around AI, Science Foundation Ireland director-general Mark Ferguson fielded a question on countering AI "scare stories" such as wide-scale loss of jobs to automation. He said that aside from the importance of educating people there is a role for a citizens' assembly as a "deliberative process countering what you might call fake news".

While not directly answering the question of whether the Government is currently considering the setting up of a citizens’ assembly on AI, he said “discussions need to be had on a societal level” with “a need to find deliberative processes and mechanisms” to balance the pace of technological innovations with their place in society.

Social media

Meanwhile deliberations were happening in the form of parallel conversations on social media. Some attendees (and those following the live stream) revealed concerns about charting the correct course when it came to a data privacy issue that wasn’t highlighted during the summit: the public services card (PSC).

In this vein, an afternoon panel on how governments can drive digital innovation featured Denmark as a shining beacon. Soren Gaard, deputy permanent secretary, at the ministry for business, industry and financial affairs in Denmark, told the audience that 83 per cent of Danish people trust government handling of personal data.

Paul O'Brien, director of public affairs at Drury Porter Novelli and former special adviser to the Taoiseach, mused on Twitter: "There's a statistic . . . This trust ploughs the way for new public services. I wonder what the same stat is for Ireland despite the recent high profile scrap over the PSC."

While Gaard maintained that public trust in the Danish government's handling of data, combined with wide broadband coverage, was crucial to its success, Jesper Lund, chairman the IT-Political Association of Denmark, an organisation working to promote digital privacy and freedom, had another interpretation.

Lund tweeted: “The real explanation is that Denmark simply forced citizens to use the digital services. Nothing like coercion pushes the participation rate towards 100 per cent, even for digital services that are user-unfriendly.”

There was, however, a brief mention of the PSC: the office of the Data Protection Commissioner got a shout-out from Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the Future Privacy Forum based in Washington, DC. Polonetsky said "kudos" to DPC Helen Dixon and praised the body for standing its ground. This was, of course, in response to the Government's rejection of a report stating that expanding use of the card beyond its application within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is illegal while advising the Government to delete personal data currently stored on more than three million citizens who hold a card.

Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon, author of The Psychology of Social Media, said: “The Digital Summit Dublin is yet another example of ‘government by event management’ – a photo opportunity which achieves very little except getting the ‘Government of Ireland’ brand trending on Twitter.”

“The juxtaposition of the Government hosting a flashy tech event while at the same time dragging the Data Protection Commissioner through the mud is hubris writ large.”

Digital Rights Ireland

While the digital summit buzz fizzled out on Twitter, discussion of the PSC has continued apace on social media. In a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) session held on Monday, Antoin O’Lachtnain, a director of Digital Rights Ireland (DRI), invited questions from the public.

O’Lachtnain summed up DRI’s position on the PSC: “The thing that is significant here is really that the Government is trying to create a single comprehensive database that it can use for any administrative purpose. The driving licence and passport databases are not comprehensive and they can only be used for specific, limited purposes.

He added: “I think the Government wants this data because it naively believes it can solve problems in this way. In particular it thinks the card can be used to tackle fraud. In fact it is not really effective at this.”

O’Lachtnain claimed the Government is “only generating more problems for itself” by creating a large database that is, as he put it, neither particularly accurate nor well-verified.

True to Reddit’s highly engaged user base, DRI had pushback as well as support for its #no2psc campaign. One user, claiming to be an IT contractor who has worked with several government departments, said “the biggest issue was civil servants looking up there [sic] neighbours and friends” while another said it was worth having the card if it meant only having to carry around one single ID in your wallet. Yet another user asked why DRI was afraid of a small plastic card.

The answer, said O’Lachtnain, is applications outside of the original remit: “One fear is that this will be loaded into a facial recognition system and used to identify people from closed-circuit television cameras”.

And of course there is a diversity of opinion around facial recognition technology. Microsoft's Ann Johnson, for example, spoke at the summit about data security as a matter of weighing up risk against convenience: "I'm not so concerned about facial recognition technology when it means I can get through airport security much faster than previously possible. On the other hand, I don't have Alexa or any listening devices in my home because of the security threat."

Johnson, as a vice-president of cybersecurity, speaks from a position of expertise where she oversees teams that see 6.5 trillion threats on a daily basis, employing AI capable of detecting new forms of malware in mere milliseconds. Her opinion and those of other tech experts are invaluable but here’s hoping a diversity of voices outside of private industry and academic have a say on the future of, as Varadkar puts it, “the tech capital of Europe”.

Wouldn’t it be truly innovative if the Government was prepared to feed these difficult conversations happening on social media, alongside those of senior VPs at global tech companies, into future actions and policy development?