Official Information Act a dinosaur that cannot die


When the Official Information Act was conceived, the year was 1982. The internet was still 11 years away. Mobile phones were literally the size of bricks and computers were not common. It was unique for its time with few if any other nations having such legislation purposefully written to open up official information to the public.

In 2019, though the O.I.A. is run down. An agency in 1982 might for example have to collect a significant paper file from the vaults, clear it to be taken to the offices of those who need to see it, scrutinise the file and then take it back once the officials concerned have established what they need to know. It could take days to assemble the information. In 2019 that is not the case any more. Files have been converted electronically into .PDF format or other appropriate formats, all agencies have computers so unless it is a complex request, requesting the information is something that can be done in a matter of minutes.

But somehow the operating procedures that are triggered in carrying out a O.I.A. request for information have not made it into the 21st Century. The O.I.A. is being dragged down by an operating framework that has not adjusted to the environment it is expected to work in.  It cannot meet the myriad of demands placed on it by the New Zealand public, politicians and the bureaucratic and political systems it is supposed to maintain the transparency of.

In some respects it reminds me of dinosaurs around the world in the days and months following the impact of a large meteorite off the coast of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The entire food chain was impacted by the vast clouds of dust kicked up, the huge waves that radiated out in all directions. The herbivores, reliant on plants to survive – which were dying off en masse for lack of sunlight – were the first to go, followed by omnivores and finally carnivores.

Now if we look at the Official Information Act, we see that with the rise of social media the 1982 bureaucracy that administers the O.I.A. is simply not up to scratch. It is a potential game changing event because agencies are saying they cannot release the information fast enough or fails to release all that has been requested because of concerns of over release. Ministers and their advisors are running into problems about how, where, when they should view material. It has not gotten around the fact that with electronic files there are a variety of ways to manipulate the information and that it can be done very rapidly.

Some people have suggested that the O.I.A. be abolished – an idea that I find somewhat excessive. The general idea and intent of the Act is fine, but the implementation of it is not. A far better solution would be to overhaul the existing legislation. This needs to happen soon. The O.I.A. cannot become like the dinosaurs did – dead because they could not adjust to the inhospitable environment – but the longer Parliament takes to overhaul it, the greater the risk becomes that someone in a position of power meaning well, but out of sheer frustration, decides the Act should be torn up completely.

Acknowledging the good, the bad and out right ugly of social media


Soon Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will address leaders of the political word and the technological world in Paris. She will be talking about the need to address hate speech on social media and how to stop the spread of videos recorded by attackers in the course of their acts of violence. As we wait for that address it is important to acknowledge the role of social media in our lives – good and bad.

Social media plays a critical role in New Zealand in dispensing information from the authorities. It came into its own during the earthquake emergencies of 2010 and 2011 where for example it was the media platform on which the Student Volunteer Army was launched. In the years since it has been used to update the public during the recent Christchurch terrorist attacks, numerous overseas emergencies such as tsunami events. The same authorities have realized that whilst establishing a channel for criticism of all sorts, and sometimes quite nasty stuff at that, it provides the public with a non urgent means of passing on information, making queries and helping with tasks such as solving crimes.It also helps to build a rapport with various agencies – notably New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force – posting more light hearted content such as the “Pawlice – Doggo’s with Jobbo’s” series of posts of Police dogs and their handlers having fun.

The same social media has by orders of magnitude improved politicians ability to interact with their constituents, campaign during election periods and pass on information. All of the parties in Parliament have Facebook and Twitter accounts, which can be lightning rods of support for media savvy politicians.  as evidenced in the United States by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s ability to turn attacks on her back on the attacker (Fox News, Breitbart, et al). In equal measure when a politician does something particularly nasty such as attack a religious minority (Australian Senator Fraser Anning attacked the Muslim community on his Twitter account, which then got suspended), social media accounts become lightning rods of criticism. Given the ability that social media has provided politicians to do much of their constituency work, I cannot imagine any politician who tries to limit social media because of certain networks failure to shut down harmful content following the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Tragically social media when abused can be the focal point of dreadful consequences for some. Examples in point have been numerous and I have often found myself having to call out racism or other bigotted behaviour – comments about people of African descent being monkeys/chimpanzees; Muslims being goat humpers, kiddy fiddlers and such; Maori being barbaric savages, and so it goes on. Sometimes Facebook has done the right thing and blocked the person or taken down the offending content, but just as often it has left highly inflammatory stuff up. I have also found that – although they seem to have had second thoughts about this since – in its early days streaming live coverage of police trying to talk someone out of jumping off a building was apparently a thing and it would attack absolutely horrible commentary.

I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account as well as this blog. I operate three pages on Facebook – one for my Amnesty International group with input from Amnesty International New Zealand head office in Auckland, one calling for comprehensive reform of waste legislation and one for this blog. My Twitter account is so I can comment on tweets in a strictly personal capacity as myself. I owe the success of my blog, which on average at the moment gets about 200 visits a day and on occasion over 1,000 to extensive advertising I have done on Facebook.

The same Facebook, as I am sure is the case for millions around the world, has enabled me to make contact with people I have never met but am now good friends with. It has enabled me to maintain long distance friendships with people in Sweden, the United States and elsewhere. Obviously with family members living both here and abroad, making contact and showing them photos of things like birthdays, weddings, new borns and things the children have been doing, helps to close the distance in a metaphorical sense if not a literal one.

There is absolutely no doubt that we must improve our conduct on Facebook, Twitter and so forth. There is also no doubt that, despite their assertions to the contrary both and others like Instagram can do more. But this idea that all is hunky dory is complete and utter garbage. Don’t believe me? Former Facebook staff member and one of Mr Zuckerberg’s initial inner circle Roger McNamee wrote a book called “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe”. In Whitcoull’s now.

New Zealand needs to draw a line on New Zealander’s privacy


New Zealander’s spend much of their internet time using the services of a few very large tech giants. Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! are some of them.

I am no exception. I have this blog, which requires an e-mail account, which I have with G-Mail. I have a Facebook page for this blog as well as my own private profile. I have a Twitter profile. Across the course of my presence on the internet, I have downloaded applications from Google Play, both free and otherwise.

In order to supply those services and products it is understandable that they will need to store some basic data about their users. They will need to know that their users are verified and not some sort of computer bot. They will need data specific to the types of services and products they supply.

What is not so easily acceptable – and which should be the subject of honest, robust debate – is whether these companies should be able to build up a vast profile of ones internet footprint. Below is an example from Britain of how Google was able to do so.

A contributor to The Guardian wrote an article a few months ago about how much Google and Facebook for example were able to store about him. The results he found were rather startling. Google was able to store every single search, purchase, e-mail sent/received, app downloaded that he had done for nearly the last 10 years, in his case dating back to 2009. At the time of him publishing the article Google had 5.5 gigabytes of information about his activities.

A few weeks ago I deleted my Google + accounts. Aside from having barely used them since they were formed, wanted to reduce the footprint across which Google could collect data about me. Yesterday I became aware of how to check Google’s knowledge of the ads it displays that one might have clicked on – deliberately or accidentally. Over the next few days I am going to see how far I can reduce my Google Ads footprint.

Google is not the only tech company I am trying to reduce my online profile with. Facebook, long accused – justifiably so – of being in breach of the privacy laws of various national jurisdictions, has been issued ultimatim’s to fix the breaches and demonstrate having done so, for face sanctions.

In my case I have removed photos from prior to 2016. I have family and friends who used to be quite active on Facebook, who have stopped posting and have simply walked away from their accounts. Others have deleted their accounts outright when they have concluded that Facebook has access to too much of their private lives.

I am but a gnat against the likes of Google and Facebook, but I honestly believe that if first world nations made these companies respect their privacy laws, there might be a fighting chance of an overall sea change in how these companies view the world. If New Zealand took a stand and told these companies they would face sanctions for non-compliance, their contemptuous outlook might change. It would have a precedent to follow – other nations have already attempted to lay down the law to Facebook. How long before they try it on Google and the others?

Hopefully not long.

 

Autonomous robots pose undue risk


Autonomous robots pose an undue risk to humans and human activity.

To see what is meant by this statement, an autonomous robot helping to perform an operation contributed to the death of a patient on an operating table in Britain when it knocked the hand of an assisting medic at a critical phase in the surgery. Whilst the robot did not make the fatal moves that ultimately led to the patients death a few days later, it was considered to have contributed.

I believe that medical procedures being done on humans are too valuable to have robotic assistance for a number of reasons, the one above being just one:

  1. Could a robot be programmed to tell minute differences in what is being operated on, such as for example the space between a piece of embeded shrapnel and something important like an artery
  2. Would robots have a broad enough understand of human language and interactions to not misinterpret something and subsequently behave in a way surgeons or other specialists might not anticipate
  3. In a time pressured situation such as someone losing much blood and the bleeding needing to be quickly stemmed, could a robot react in time or understand the urgency

The medical profession would be wary of any robot technology that cannot be over ridden by a human being since artificial intelligence is not (yet!) able to distinguish situational issues with the clarity that would be necessary to be an effective tool. But there is a bigger problem. Da Vinci – as the one in the article was known – and like robots will only be as good as the humans who designed them and work with them.

Another example of dangerous autonomous robots are the development of military robots. These will have the ability to determine themselves who to kill. Britain is thought to be funding the development of such weapons.

Both ethically and legally this raises very serious and immediately potent questions about the sort of military weapons that should be developed. Legally it enters a part of the Geneva conventions that is very grey and which has not been a priority for politicians in terms of overhauling. Ethically weapons that develop an operational mind of their own is highly improper at best.

Even if the drones are securely controlled and operated under strict parameters, there is also always the risk that cyber hacking could break into the drone and make it go rogue. In a politically charged environment where cyber attacks are frequent there is no such thing as a cast iron guarantee that such technology will be secure.

New Zealand politicians are perhaps 15-20 years behind on their understanding of technology and the ethical and legal challenges its applications pose. This is a rather broad statement, but also one that has serious truth to it. Therefore it is highly unlikely that they have given thought to the potential hazards of killer drones and the short comings of robots in a surgery environment – though admittedly in the latter, the robot is clearly supposed to be helping in a procedure that ultimately makes the human better.

Will our politicians get with the times before technological best practices in New Zealand start involving robots in situations where the human is not necessarily in control?

Technology regulation in New Zealand needs overhaul


Many of you might have watched Terminator movies when you were kid. For those deprived of what was essential viewing for my generation, they were about the remnants of humanity versus intelligent machines created by Skynet which posed a threat to the human race. These movies were science-fiction at its finest. But 30 years after the first one, killer robots are not so far fetched now as we thought.

It is not just killer robots – more on that later – but also the misuse of drones, which have many practical military and civilian uses, around airports and the rise of the sexual robot that have raised concerns. A mixture of security, ethical and safety issues have arisen at a speed that New Zealand politicians seem to have been caught flat footed.

New Zealand politicians have been slow to catch on to the growing threat for example posed by the use of drones and lasers around airports. Not a month goes by without drones and/or lasers being implicated in a potentially dangerous act that could have brought down an aircraft. A few weeks ago drones held up or forced the diversion of aircraft at Auckland Airport for over an hour. Other instances have included interference around Christchurch Airport by people with lasers.

Whilst progress is being made in tackling the interference of aircraft by people wielding lasers, this is not the case with drones. In the case of lasers, criminal prosecutions have been brought against several people, which has sent a message that this is criminal activity that can be traced.

Drones pose a bigger risk. They can be made to hover for long periods of time, move randomly with the pilot having no chance to react in time and their physical mass is large enough that it would cause substantial damage to a plane. Coupled with the restrictions placed on aircraft flight paths around airports, the potential to cause a major civil aviation incident is very real.

It is time to ask questions of how appropriate sexual robots are. These are predominantly female gendered robots that imitate sexual favours being performed. As robots have no concept of ethics, given the just alarm over sexual violence, how appropriate is it for a person to act out their fantasies on a robotic being that cannot say no or physically reject inappropriate conduct. Without appropriate checks on what sort of functions a robot can and cannot perform, is technology lending itself inadvertently to some of the darkest and most dangerous of control over a human being?

But the most dangerous robotic menace are potential murder drones or killer robots that might open fire or otherwise use lethal force against a human being. The artificial intelligence race means that robots with a degree of humanoid intelligence already exist. This is not just a concern of mine, but a concern of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Numerous countries are already calling for a ban of such technology and point to the certainty that rogue states such as – but not limited to – North Korea might get hold of it and would be most certain to use it against rivals.

Overhauling regulation does not necessarily mean bringing in a raft of new laws, although that will definitely be necessary in dealing with some types of technology. It might well be that existing laws are fine, but just need updating. In the case of drones for example new regulations will be necessary, including licensing, fines and operating compliance with the Civil Aviation Authority rules.