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Technological Development Meets Policy Development

The impact of Covid-19 has been far-reaching and complex. While there has been a noticeable increase in technologies connected to surveillance systems in order to deal with the pandemic there has also been a steady move by policymakers to be more active in determining how technology is developed and deployed. In fact, the pandemic has created pressures that are also realigning the public perception of technological fixes and highlighting the need for thoughtful policy responses. [1, 2]

Privacy and the use of data are not new concerns. The high-profile case of the Sidewalk Labs initiative in Toronto is a case in point. As Sarah Wray points out it “was a microcosm for debates about the use of data, privacy and the role of big technology companies in the public realm.”[1] The initiative, set up by Google owner Alphabet, was supposed to create a smart neighborhood in a part of Toronto. However, the initiative was unable to move forward, citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty”. 

The pandemic has only highlighted these issues and while governments have increased funding for various technologies, they have also been reevaluating how these technologies will be used in practice. For example, Portland, the major city in the state of Oregon, has recently banned the use of facial recognition technology for both governmental and private use. Similarly San Diego, in California, has deactivated 3,200 smart streetlights until specific legislation can be passed that deals with concerns about surveillance and use of the technology beyond its intended use. [1,3]

The San Diego case highlights an essential concern with many of the technological systems that are being put in place: unintended consequences. The installation of the smart streetlights was intended as a way of increasing traffic safety. However, the mountains of data coming in soon found other uses, and in particular the use of video for police activities. [3] This slide has led to the regulatory backlash and shines a light on the need to protect against using these powerful technologies in ways that are not covered under democratically ratified policies. [1]


Personal comment

This is a positive sign. It is often pointed out that policy lags behind technological development. True, though that often is, it is important for policymakers, governments, and citizens to be involved in the development of the way society moves forward. There is no reason to think that there is only one way for technological systems to develop. The interests of private companies are not always in line with those of society at large, and the technology that they develop should not foist upon society unilateral structures. It is the balanced conversation between all stakeholders within the confines of legal frameworks that leads to trust in both directions. [4] 


Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE Mobility & Systems.



1. 2020-11-16 How cities are defining the rules of engagement for emerging technology
2. 2020-10-05 Gartner Says Government IoT Revenue for Endpoint Electronics and Communications to Total $15 Billion in 2020
3. 2020-08-06 In San Diego, ‘Smart’ Streetlights Spark Surveillance Reform
4. 2019-04-08 Ethics guidelines for trustworthy AI