The other day, the Dutch Financial Times published an interview with me on my ‘Brandende Kwestie’ (literal translation: burning issue). It was a great opportunity to raise awareness for something I’ve really wanted to talk about for a long time: the lack of meaningful societal debate and hidden agendas when new technologies or new government IT-projects are introduced.
Here’s the interview [pdf].
The difficulty of technology assessment deserves broader attention. It is captured elegantly in the Collingridge Dilemma, proposed by Collingridge in his seminal 1980 book The Social Control of Technology.
When change is easy, the need for it cannot be foreseen; when the need for change is apparent, change has become expensive, difficult and time consuming.
I found this 2010 article [pdf] by Liebert and Schmidt a great addition to the Collingridge dilemma.
Basically, the dilemma can be overcome by increasing our level of knowledge, decreasing the influence of power (especially lobbying) and be open and frank about the agendas that underlie the introduction of a technology or any big IT-project, particularly by the government.
In the interview I give three examples of disastrous IT-projects of the Dutch government – Electronic Health Records (EPD), public transport chip cards (OV-chip) and the biometric passport – costing tax payers billions of Euros. The agendas of the projects were hidden and, notably and erroneously, policymakers assured that people shouldn’t worry about their privacy. In fact, the national projects crushed the privacy and security interests of patients and travellers, but they only found out about that when the systems were in place. Consequently the outcry was high or uptake was low, politicians pointed fingers, systems had to be redesigned.
Right now, we’re experiencing something similar with popular web services offered by the likes of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Facebook. Assurances that nobody would be looking into your data were largely bogus, both because these companies have to cooperate with the NSA, and because the NSA hacks into their systems. Meanwhile, consumers and companies alike are locked into US clouds. Now what?
I’m confident that we can do a lot better in the design or technology assessment phase, if we heed the lessons that the Collingridge dilemma provided us already in 1980. New technologies or projects need to be rigorously debated, illuminating the underlying interests and designating appropriate security requirements.
On the governments’ side, that requires investment in technological capacity of decision makers and, even more imporantly, a commitment to transparency and open debate. Knowledge without power is weak, power without knowledge is dangerous.
Ps. they also asked me to name three out-of-the-box sources of inspiration for my research. I chose Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Eben Moglen’s Snowden and the Future lectures and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.