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A tri-polar privacy world: China, EU, US conflict on rights regimes

A tri-polar privacy world: China, EU, US conflict on rights regimes

There’s an old African saying: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. And when elephants make love, it is the grass that suffers. Libertine innuendo aside, what happens when three elephants rub elbows?

That is the as-yet unanswered question that insiders are asking about data privacy regimes, especially those involving biometrics collected via facial recognition and other methods.

The three giants are China, the United States and the European Union, each of which will greatly influence how digital privacy is governed. It does not look like a good time to be a blade of grass.

No one thinks one regulatory philosophy will encompass the globe soon. But the concepts of protecting individual privacy among the three differ so markedly — to the point of complete opposition in the case of the United States and the EU — that it is unclear how they can co-exist right now.

Four experts on data privacy from around the world met last week during the Chinese Internet Research Conference to discuss the theoretical global governance of face biometrics, the internet and smart cities.

Anyone expecting dives into each of those topics was disappointed. In fact, they were rarely mentioned by name in an hour of discourse. The panel, instead, mostly talked about the practicalities of being a data vendor or an individual person in a digital privacy world dominated by China, the United States and the EU.

On hand were Ang Peng Hwa, a communications and information professor at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore; Marcus Foth, founder of the Urban Informatics Research Lab at Queensland University of Technology; Min Jiang, professor of communication at the FGV Law School in São Paulo; and Lorraine Kisselburgh, a Purdue University social scientist.

A list of relevant publications for each can be found here.

Each of them expressed dismay that the United States is unable to create a coherent privacy regime, preferably one that meshes with EU efforts. The end result could be a confusing period when it is hard for anyone to know who might be collecting their data and why.

Peng Hwa said each of the three nations’ choice for standardizing privacy policies reveals much about each’s history.

The EU’s still-evolving regime is informed by why people’s origins were traced during the Holocaust, he said. As a group of nations (authoritarianism grows among individual members), the regulatory emphasis is on human dignity.

Its rules are written to apply to any nation or company that comes in contact with the biometrics of EU citizens, said Jiang, which is having the effect of enforcing a semblance of coherence.

She said that the EU’s moves are part of a larger effort to create an AI technology foundation to rival that of the United States.

U.S. privacy rules have not yet reached the point where they can evolve. True, much of the nation sees market forces as an invisible hand moving all technology forward. And there is little political momentum behind elevating the privacy rights of individuals.

But no central philosophy or coherent mat of regulations exist (outside of the view that data is a valuable resource). No one, not businessowners nor privacy activists, knows what will happen next.

In the absence of federal leadership, a handful of states have written the kind of narrow laws expected from fractious politics.

What is more, many U.S. lawmakers expect the rest of the world to follow their example of surveillance capitalism while adapting to their rudderless governance.

In these ways, the two Atlantic unions, which had for years been synchronous on many levels, are on a collision course with biometric policy.

China, on the other hand, has been influenced indirectly by the United States, said Peng Hwa.

Data releases by Edward Snowden showed Chinese leaders how valuable a vast store of domestic and foreign data can be, he said. They realized they also could exploit the data that is the lives of their citizens. (Peng Hwa said they see algorithms as the next fundamental resource that needs to be cornered.)

Philosophically, China focuses privacy policy inwardly. Its autocratic leaders primarily want to regulate their subjects’ lives. Those subjects virtually never object to this because privacy is not a core value they share.

“Privacy is a relatively new, invented word,” said Peng Hwa. A sizable portion of the population does not understand the concept.

That China’s surveillance products have proven popular around the world is a revenue bonus. If buyers build an oppressive network of unblinking AI eyes, that is their prerogative.

Unlike the United States, said Jiang, China’s top-down policies have been followed by comprehensive legislation. People in democratic nations might be revulsed by the wholesale disregard individual’s privacy, but no one can argue that China’s leaders have picked a direction on the matter and moved ahead on goal setting.

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