By Lauren Kahn, Head of Responsible Tech and Human Rights, BT


Trusting the Data: a People’s View of Responsible Technology

This blog follows a panel discussion held by Demos and BT on 28 May, exploring insights and implications from our research into public attitudes to responsible technology. The panel was chaired by Polly Mackenzie, CEO of Demos, and my colleague Adrian Joseph OBE, Managing Director, Group AI and Data Solutions at BT, Shabira Papain, Head of Equality, Health Inequalities & Digital Inclusion at NHSX and Dr Mahlet Zimeta, Head of Public Policy at the Open Data Institute. The discussion is available on replay and the research findings can be found here.

In the past year, the role that technology plays in people’s lives has grown at a phenomenal rate. From retail, leisure, health and community services having to close their doors and shift their operations online to the proliferation of trace-and-track apps, questions around what responsible technology looks like have become more important than ever before.

Clearly technology has been of incalculable value during the pandemic, as our dependency on tech has grown, so too have our concerns over how tech is used and the need to protect individual rights while working towards the public good. We all need to know what responsible technology looks like and how we can best serve our stakeholders. How can new technologies be designed to protect and promote individual rights while also working for public good? What oversight and governance are needed to guard against abuses?

BT’s new Responsible Tech strategy has been created to help shape our development of tech-driven solutions. It’s the embodiment of our purpose to connect for good – by empowering people and improving their lives – while making sure we are always accountable, fair and open. Our goal is simple: to be the most trusted connecter of people, devices and machines. 

Working with the cross-party think-tank and research organisation Demos, we recently conducted a national conversation about responsible technology, asking the public what they think in key areas such as surveillance, data monetisation and healthcare. 

A nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 adults took part in the survey which was conducted on Polis, an online deliberation platform that encourages people to participate in discussions, rather than simply responding. The nature of a Polis survey means those taking part can submit their own statements, taken from their lived experiences, as well as vote on a set of pre-determined statements. 

Polis also uses a technique which highlights opinions shared amongst all participants. This allows people to see areas of consensus even when some of their attitudes are very different. 

The results were fascinating. Perhaps predictably, a large group are concerned about the risks of new tech and uses of data, but there were also many areas of agreement, even with those who are nonchalant about these risks. The need for better education for children about data uses, the need for technology to be made accessible to all, and support for government oversight of how companies are using people’s data are all likely areas of agreement and provide a framework on which further debate about uses of technology can be built. 

None of the groups in the survey – the “concerned”, the “conflicted” and the “nonchalant” – were whole-heartedly supportive of technological progress without caveats and controls. Those who most strongly believe that new uses of data and tech can work for the public good still don’t believe that technology providers can be trusted to use it properly, while those who aren’t actively worried about their data still have concerns over some of the ways in which it is used. 

What became clear is that we face a crisis in trust on both sides. On the one hand people don’t trust how their data is used but on the other hand they also feel they are not being trusted to make their own decisions about how they use data. The need to build trust – and improve people’s understanding about data use and new technologies – is vital. 

So how do we go forward? With systems which are already fundamentally mistrusted, half-baked add-ons – such as cookie consent forms on websites – are merely an irritant and fail to stop widespread collection of personal data. For genuine change, we need approaches to technology and data usage that are not just imposed on people and then signed off with a mere tick.

What is needed is meaningful co-design and collaboration, with the development of new technologies and uses of data shaped by a wide range of people with different needs and experiences. Where there is significant risk to human rights, this development itself should be strictly regulated and take into account how people will actually use a system and the impact that has on their rights. 

BT’s new Responsible Tech strategy won’t just guide how we work with our customers, it will ensure that our stakeholders are directly involved. Only with this level of collaboration and transparency can we maintain the trust our customers put in us – and ensure the efficacy, legitimacy and commercial value of the new technologies we provide both now and in the future. 

Read more about BT’s Responsible Tech strategy and principles in our latest Digital Impact & Sustainability Report: Our reports and policies - Digital impact & sustainability | BT Plc

Lauren Kahn, Head of Responsible Tech and Human Rights, BT