Trevor Noah's Paradox of Data Privacy at IAPP Global Privacy Summit
By Camila Martinez-Granata
Washington D.C. — Comedian and best-selling author Trevor Noah spoke at IAPP’s Global Privacy Summit Opening General Session, leading a discussion about the paradox of solving complex issues, and the importance of considering the unintended consequences of decisions and choices we make, particularly in regard to technological advancements and data privacy.
"Whenever I think about technology advancements—how we think of any tool that affects society at large, I often think about how every object has the side that you see and the side that you cannot see," Noah said. "Oftentimes, the creators of tech see the side they want to see. But what they sometimes forget to do is look at the side of the object that they may not be seeing. Those are the pitfalls, those are the downfalls—the sides of the product that may, in some way, shape or form, hurt somebody."
Unintended consequences: The weaponization of personal data
While the collection of customer and personal information is essential in today’s digital economy, careful consideration of unintended consequences must also occur—especially as the world evolves into a privacy-centric one. One unintended consequence, for example, is the weaponization of shared personal data. This is notably evident in the context of technology and government surveillance, where oppressive regimes around the world have weaponized personal data.
In particular, Noah spoke about South Africa’s apartheid and how personal data was used in a harmful, racist manner. The former host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" drew from his personal experiences and New York Times best-selling memoir, "Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood," which documents his life and experiences growing up during and after South Africa's apartheid.
"In South Africa, the apartheid government was extremely, extremely efficient in the way that they would apply their insidious ideas. And they were really focused on technology, they were really focused on science, they were really focused on psychology and you see this in many regimes around the world that oppress people," Noah said.
But, Noah also noted this is not a singular experience, and that regimes around the world have weaponized personal data. “You see it across the world, where those governments have an insatiable appetite to try and learn how to control and oppress people using information, using the ideas about those people, and how they can disseminate that information,” Noah said.
A nuanced approach to complex issues—including data privacy
It’s clear governments and brands alike need to ensure that data privacy regulations are well-designed and balanced. It’s also clear that regulations should be carefully crafted to protect personal information without hindering innovation or perpetuating discrimination.
But, in order to address unintended consequences, we need to reconsider how we evaluate and approach data privacy.
In doing so, though, Noah expressed the importance of holding space for paradoxes when solving for data privacy. "In all these issues, we're dealing with that paradox of where does the individual affect a whole? And how does the whole affect the individual? And when we find those moments where, you know, we lean to one side of the paradox, whilst admitting that both sides can be true at the same time."
As new technologies and approaches to data privacy emerge, it's important they help protect personal data while also allowing for innovation and economic growth.
"That's what's always been critical, is understanding that balance and the marriage between the two,” Noah said. "And so because of that, we always have to consider that if we're doing something good, there could be very bad side effects that we don't necessarily think about, the two always exist with each other."
Data privacy, and the paradoxes that come with it, are complex issues that require brands, governments, and private citizens to consider both intended and unintended consequences.
"I think we need to be able to hold paradoxes in our mind when we're trying to solve a lot of these problems, because they are paradoxes," Noah said. "Every side of every object will always have an unintended consequence that you don't necessarily consider."
As Noah emphasized, a more balanced and nuanced approach to solving complex problems is needed, instead of a polarized approach to solving complex problems, like data privacy. We must consider all sides and the potential consequences of any action in order to create a future where data privacy is protected, innovation thrives, and individuals and society as a whole are able to reap the benefits.
Curious about solving for data privacy and protecting customer trust, while also driving business outcomes? Schedule a meeting with a Scuba expert to find out.
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