Event recap: Artificial Intelligence and Privacy forum

Tuesday 29th August, 2017

On Friday 25 August 2017, the Office of the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection (CPDP) held its fourth public forum. Breaking away from the panel format of our past two events, this time CPDP invited two guest speakers, Dr Toby Walsh and Dr Jake Goldenfein to hold a conversation on the theme of Artificial Intelligence and Privacy.

While artificial intelligence (AI) is not new, thanks to advances in the realm of big data and machine learning, we are currently experiencing the most recent wave in popularity of AI technology. The discourse amongst privacy professionals reveals that AI is the current hot topic of discussion, and yet there remains much confusion about what AI means for information privacy.

We asked Jake and Toby to share their perspectives on some of the key ethical considerations we need to make regarding AI and its impact on the law and society – in particular, if and how this changes the way we understand the notion of privacy, and the implementation of information privacy law.

Toby Walsh, a leading researcher in AI and Professor at the University of New South Wales, provided the audience with an overview of what we mean when we talk about AI, highlighting that many people may not actually realise how much of their lives are already interfaced with this kind of technology. Toby encouraged the audience to think about how they interact with AI every day, and that in the not-so-distant future, people will be able to walk into a room, talk to it, be biometrically identified, and then provided with a response based on the profile that has been developed about that individual’s preferences and habits over time. Scenarios like this lead us to some interesting ethical and moral questions that Toby argued need to be considered now, rather than once the technology has become ubiquitous.

To complement Toby’s technological background, Jake Goldenfein joined the conversation with a legal perspective. Jake, a lecturer at Swinburne University, is currently researching how AI and automated decision-making affects processes of governance. Jake is also on the board of the Australian Privacy Foundation and has extensive experience in privacy law. Jake highlighted that many of the fundamental pillars of privacy such as the right of access and correction, anonymity, and even the concept of ‘personal information’ start to lose their relevance in a world of automation and AI.

In this context, it is unreasonable to expect that people will have the power to control how information about them is obtained – rather, they should be able to exercise control over the knowledge that is produced as a result of the data that is collected about them. In that sense, Jake suggested the emphasis might be better placed on the decisions being made by AI technologies, or how they influence human decision-making processes, rather than the collection of information itself.

It is important to note, as Toby highlighted, that AI does not just introduce challenges into our lives. There are many areas where AI can drastically improve the current paradigm, such as in health care, economics, and even privacy itself. There is potential to build privacy protections into the technological infrastructure through avenues such as distributed ledger technology (blockchain), differential privacy, and using programming languages that automate privacy enforcement.

Another possibility that should be explored further is how individual control over personal information can be reinforced by designing systems in such a way that data is processed on the device itself, rather than in the cloud or distributed servers. As Jake highlighted, AI has the potential to change privacy law into something that is much more constructive, moving the enforcement away from bureaucracy, minimising the onus of responsibility on individuals to enforce their own rights, and redirecting it back into the technology itself.

The forum is available to watch online on CPDP’s Periscope channel, and CPDP’s Twitter page.