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The other 2016 cycle: When technology outpaces policy

Technology and the data it creates call for a much clearer set of laws and guidelines — a Digital Bill of Rights — to ensure that individuals’ best interests are being defended.

Bill of Rights billofrightsintitute.org

Today’s leaders and lawmakers face the unenviable challenge of keeping up with a deluge of new technologies that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Drones, self-driving cars, advanced surveillance, digital finance, smart cities and robotics are just a handful of examples that have the potential to transform the way we live.

Falling behind puts us at risk of two distinct threats. On one hand, advancement and adoption may be stifled by concerns about murky policy or a lack of accepted technological standards. On the other, innovation without thoughtful oversight raises the specter of security, privacy and ethical breaches.

Each major technological shift presents its own unique set of practical and philosophical questions. There are, however, a handful of broader underlying issues that are vital to nearly all of the most important technological issues on the horizon.

Many of the challenges in technology today stem from a lack of agreed-upon standards, as well as deficient guidelines and protections around ownership of and access to personal data.

Many of the challenges in technology today stem from a lack of agreed-upon standards, as well as deficient guidelines and protections around ownership of and access to personal data. Addressing these common elements as quickly and effectively as possible should be the focus of business leaders and policy makers alike.

Gartner predicts that there will be 6.4 billion connected devices in 2016, a 30 percent increase on 2015. That’s more than double the number of people with internet access globally, though that figure is also increasing rapidly. Ensuring that network infrastructure is resilient enough to cope with the attendant influx of data traffic will be of chief concern in the near future.

Advanced wireless technologies such as 5G will play a vital role in connecting the impending spike in people and things that did not previously have internet access. However, as networks become increasingly complex, so do the security challenges they pose. This is one reason that improving wired connections and physical infrastructure must continue to be a priority for both private and public entities. It remains far easier to secure network traffic when using a physical wired connection.

Internet of Things deployments at a public and enterprise level will also significantly outpace regulatory items in the near term. This fact accelerates the need for policy making around legislation and industry guidelines.

Take the self-driving car, for example. The technology to manufacture and deploy self-driving cars exists today, but some fundamental questions must be answered before they hit the roads. Who is liable for an accident? The driver, the car manufacturer or the company that wrote the software? How will this change requisite insurance coverage? There are a tremendous number of stakeholders involved, many of whom do not have aligned priorities. These are issues we need to be negotiating in earnest today.

Another hurdle on the way to a truly connected world is that there will be no global standard for IoT — the technologies involved are simply too broad. Policy makers and organizations pushing toward some semblance of standardization will need to narrow their focus to certain categories or specific industry verticals. For example, while creating standards around smart grids is no easy feat, it is more manageable than doing the same for all connected devices.

Policy makers must prioritize removing the gray areas around rights and ownership to better define the protections afforded to those trusting their data to the cloud.

The Internet of Things is also set to challenge and complicate the network infrastructure that will power tomorrow’s cities. A failure of machine-to-machine communications within smart-city ecosystems could have disastrous consequences if it leads to failure of electric grids, transport systems and health care technology. Policy makers need to start thinking about IoT traffic differently from traditional traffic. Data must be tiered and prioritized based on whether it is critical (health care) or non-critical (streaming video).

Data does not just present challenges when it’s in transit; there’s also the question of where it’s located. The rapid ascent of cloud technology has put the need for data access regulation in stark relief. Does the geographical location of data matter? When can military or law enforcement organizations compel technology vendors to give them access? Either way, the question of where we draw the line for extenuating circumstances is not an easy one.

This is our most polarizing technology issue at present. The question of data sovereignty is being adjudicated in courts between governments and tech giants. Access to personal data in investigations involving national security has become common fodder for campaign rhetoric. The shift to digital records has even created uncertainty in industries such as health care, in which data has traditionally been heavily regulated. These challenges are as complex as they are contentious. They also aren’t going away.

Each successive legal battle involving a lack of clear guidelines around personal data underscores the issue. Policymakers must prioritize removing the gray areas around rights and ownership to better define the protections afforded to those trusting their data to the cloud.

Technology and the data it creates have become an intrinsic part of most people’s lives. This shift must be met with a much clearer set of laws and guidelines — a Digital Bill of Rights — to ensure that individuals’ best interests are being defended.


John Hayduk is the chief corporate operations officer at Tata Communications. He is responsible for strengthening the company’s execution capability, driving achievement of the company goals and leading the implementation of the company’s strategic vision to create an open infrastructure, partner ecosystem and platforms for businesses to stay competitive in this digital age. Reach him @john_hayduk.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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