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Brittany Kaiser: big tech executives should be held criminally liable for their companies’ mischiefs

Britanny Kaiser, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, reckons that big tech companies have not obeyed data protection laws, but they only get a slap on the wrist as punishment. Therefore, executives should be held criminally accountable for their companies’ crimes.

Ethical technology is a growing concept, she said during the Collision tech conference. Yet, emerging technologies are moving so fast that they are outpacing the decisions that governments are making.

“Sometimes what you can do with data and technology is not what you should do. I have friends that are in thought leadership positions at some of the biggest advertising conglomerates in the world and big tech companies that are starting to implement these types of internal policies to make sure that even if the law allows us to do things that we should not do with technology, there is a moral compass within companies what we should and should not do, and we are making better decisions on behalf of consumers and citizens around the world,” she said.

A couple of years ago, Kaiser became a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower. She has spent the past few years working with legislators, investigators, and activists to make sure every single person is protected, and that we have more rights over our data than we did before.

She reckons that our world is not incredibly digitally literate because we were taught how to use certain technologies but not how they work. There are some steps that we could take to protect our data and privacy instead of just waiting for  additional laws and regulations.

Kaiser suggested choosing privacy-by-design technologies that help us own our personal information and make educated individual decisions about how our data is used.

“The more that we understand how to protect ourselves, and, for instance, we start to use things like Signal or Sense chat instead of WhatsApp, Voice.com instead of Facebook, Brave browser instead of Google Chrome. (...)   That is how we are going to make a faster change than waiting for the law,” she said.

Meanwhile, big tech has become an insult to the intelligence of the public and to the way that laws are enforced. 

“A shocking number of different laws and regulations can be broken by big tech companies. All they are getting is the slap on the wrist. I'm a big proponent of big tech executives being held accountable for the crimes that are committed by their companies,” she said.

Kaiser reminded that a couple of years ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Corporate Executive Accountability Acts. It said that executives will be held criminally liable if their companies decide to break data protection regulations due to gross negligence.

“Right now, tech executives and their companies have civil liability, meaning that they can get a fine as Facebook did. Even though it was 5 billion dollars in the United States, they made more than 5 billion dollars back the same day because of the amount of press that surrounded the announcement. We need to make sure that there is an incentive for companies to be ethical and to obey the law,” Kaiser said.

Big tech, according to her, definitely has an agenda but not a political one: 

“It is to make as much money as possible for their shareholders while completely ignoring the needs of their users.”

Kaiser also pointed out that tech companies try to maintain good relationships with the government.

“Most of the violations committed by Trump supporters or the Trump campaign itself were completely ignored. Facebook allowed everything from voter suppression to incitement of racial hatred on its platform. As soon as it became very obvious that Donald Trump could not overturn the election results and that Joe Biden and his administration would be sworn in, Donald Trump gets banned from Facebook.” 

Kaiser goes further to suggest that tech companies are ready to abandon their moral code in a strive for profit.

“They will give up their moral and ethical values for that very easily,” Kaiser concluded.

Data ownership

Kaiser is a co-founder of the Own Your Data foundation, believes that we produce data, and we should get paid for it. After all, data is a commodity more valuable than oil and gas.

“The next frontier with law and regulation around personal data is digital ownership. We have seen this with the massive global boom of the NFT industry, which is the first popular application of digital ownership,” she said.

For many years now, she has been helping popularize the idea that we should own our data as property. Now, multiple court decisions are establishing that. For example, in Minnesota, where she was the only expert witness in the first successful case suing Equifax for property damage for their massive data breach, data is now considered property because of this specific case.

She believes that tech companies will have to start introducing data dividend mechanisms instead of hiring expensive data scientists to analyze it and make certain guesses about the users.

“For instance, they are trying to decide if I am a man or woman, and licensing five datasets about me, three of them saying I am a woman and two saying I am a man. You have to pay someone 3-5k dollars a year to figure that out using data science and make a guess. Instead, you could incentivize me by giving me tokens or some coupon and ask me if I am a man or a woman directly. That is going to be the future of the business to consumer trust and the types of data relationships that are going to be a lot more ethical. It is going to cut out a lot of time and expense for big companies,” she said.

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