The breathless pace of development means data protection regulators need to be prepared for another scandal like Cambridge Analytica, says Wojciech Wiewiórowski, the EU’s data watchdog.
Wiewiórowski is the European data protection supervisor, and he is a powerful figure. His role is to hold the EU accountable for its own data protection practices, monitor the cutting edge of technology, and help coordinate enforcement around the union. I spoke with him about the lessons we should learn from the past decade in tech, and what Americans need to understand about the EU’s data protection philosophy. Here’s what he had to say.
What tech companies should learn: That products should have privacy features designed into them from the beginning. However, “it’s not easy to convince the companies that they should take on privacy-by-design models when they have to deliver very fast,” he says. Cambridge Analytica remains the best lesson in what can happen if companies cut corners when it comes to data protection, says Wiewiórowski. The company, which became one of Facebook’s biggest publicity scandals, had scraped the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence how they voted. It’s only a matter of time until we see another scandal, he adds.
What Americans need to understand about the EU’s data protection philosophy: “The European approach is connected with the purpose for which you use the data. So when you change the purpose for which the data is used, and especially if you do it against the information that you provide people with, you are in breach of law,” he says. Take Cambridge Analytica. The biggest legal breach was not that the company collected data, but that it claimed to be collecting data for scientific purposes and quizzes, and then used it for another purpose—mainly to create political profiles of people. This is a point made by data protection authorities in Italy, which have temporarily banned ChatGPT there. Authorities claim that OpenAI collected the data it wanted to use illegally, and did not tell people how it intended to use it.
Does regulation stifle innovation? This is a common claim among technologists. Wiewiórowski says the real question we should be asking is: Are we really sure that we want to give companies unlimited access to our personal data? “I don’t think that the regulations … are really stopping innovation. They are trying to make it more civilized,” he says. The GDPR, after all, protects not only personal data but also trade and the free flow of data over borders.
Big Tech’s hell on Earth? Europe is not the only one playing hardball with tech. As I reported last week, the White House is mulling rules for AI accountability, and the Federal Trade Commission has even gone as far as demanding that companies delete their algorithms and any data that may have been collected and used illegally, as happened to Weight Watchers in 2022. Wiewiórowski says he is happy to see President Biden call on tech companies to take more responsibility for their products’ safety and finds it encouraging that US policy thinking is converging with European efforts to prevent AI risks and put companies on the hook for harms. “One of the big players on the tech market once said, ‘The definition of hell is European legislation with American enforcement,’” he says.
Read more on ChatGPT
The inside story of how ChatGPT was built from the people who made it
Child online safety laws will actually hurt kids, critics say
At the same time, we’ve also seen many states pick up (and politicize) laws about online safety for kids in recent months. These policies vary quite a bit from state to state, as I wrote back in April. Some focus on children’s data, and others try to limit how much and when kids can get online.
Supporters say these laws are necessary to mitigate the risks that big tech companies pose to young people—risks that are increasingly well documented. They say it’s well past time to put guardrails in place and limit the collecting and selling of minors’ data.
“What we’re doing here is creating a duty of care that makes the social media platforms accountable for the harms they’ve caused,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, who is co-sponsoring a child online safety bill in the Senate, in an interview with Slate. “It gives attorneys general and the FTC the power to bring lawsuits based on the product designs that, in effect, drive eating disorders, bullying, suicide, and sex and drug abuse that kids haven’t requested and that can be addictive.”
But—surprise, surprise—as with most things, it’s not really that simple. There are also vocal critics who argue that child safety laws are actually harmful to kids because all these laws, no matter their shape, have to contend with a central tension: in order to implement laws that apply to kids online, companies need to actually identify which users are kids—which requires the collection or estimation of sensitive personal information.
I was thinking about this when the prominent New York–based civil society organization S.T.O.P. (which stands for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project) released a report on September 28 that highlights some of these potential harms and makes the case that all bills requiring tech companies to identify underage users, even if well intentioned, will increase online surveillance for everyone.
“These bills are sold as a way to protect teens, but they do just the opposite,” S.T.O.P. executive director Albert Fox Cahn said in a press release. “Rather than misguided efforts to track every user’s age and identity, we need privacy protections for every American.”
There’s a wide range of regulations out there, but the report calls out several states that are creating laws imposing stricter—even drastic—restrictions on minors’ internet access, effectively limiting online speech.
A Utah law that will take effect in March 2024, for instance, will require that parents give consent for their kids to access social media outside the hours of 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and that social media companies build features enabling parents to access their kids’ accounts.
The Download: child online safety laws, and ClimateTech is coming
Matt Kaeberlein is what you might call a dog person. He has grown up with dogs and describes his German shepherd, Dobby, as “really special.” But Dobby is 14 years old—around 98 in dog years.
Kaeberlein is co-director of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious research effort to track the aging process of tens of thousands of companion dogs across the US. He is one of a handful of scientists on a mission to improve, delay, and possibly reverse that process to help them live longer, healthier lives.
And dogs are just the beginning. One day, this research could help to prolong the lives of humans. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)
+ All hail the unsung women of indie sleaze.
+ It’s officially October!
+ This list of sartorial advice has been entertaining us at MIT Technology Review—how many points do you agree with?
+ Put down the expired milk, it’s got a whole lot more to give. 🥛
+ Some top tips for remembering your dreams more fully: should you want to, that is.
Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
The technology would likely be used first on infants born at 22 or 23 weeks who don’t have many other options. “You don’t want to put an infant on this device who would otherwise do well with conventional therapy,” Mychaliska says. At 22 weeks gestation, babies are tiny, often weighing less than a pound. And their lungs are still developing. When researchers looked at babies born between 2013 and 2018, survival among those who were resuscitated at 22 weeks was 30%. That number rose to nearly 56% at 23 weeks. And babies born at that stage who do survive have an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems, cerebral palsy, mobility problems, hearing impairments, and other disabilities.
Selecting the right participants will be tricky. Some experts argue that gestational age shouldn’t be the only criteria. One complicating factor is that prognosis varies widely from center to center, and it’s improving as hospitals learn how best to treat these preemies. At the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, for example, survival rates are much higher than average: 64% for babies born at 22 weeks. They’ve even managed to keep a handful of infants born at 21 weeks alive. “These babies are not a hopeless case. They very much can survive. They very much can thrive if you are managing them appropriately,” says Brady Thomas, a neonatologist at Stead. “Are you really going to make that much of a bigger impact by adding in this technology, and what risks might exist to those patients as you’re starting to trial it?”
Prognosis also varies widely from baby to baby depending on a variety of factors. “The girls do better than the boys. The bigger ones do better than the smaller ones,” says Mark Mercurio, a neonatologist and pediatric bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine. So “how bad does the prognosis with current therapy need to be to justify use of an artificial womb?” That’s a question Mercurio would like to see answered.
What are the risks?
One ever-present concern in the tiniest babies is brain bleeds. “That’s due to a number of factors—a combination of their brain immaturity, and in part associated with the treatment that we provide,” Mychaliska says. Babies in an artificial womb would need to be on a blood thinner to prevent clots from forming where the tubes enter the body. “I believe that places a premature infant at very high risk for brain bleeding,” he says.
And it’s not just about the baby. To be eligible for EXTEND, infants must be delivered via cesarean section, which puts the pregnant person at higher risk for infection and bleeding. Delivery via a C-section can also have an impact on future pregnancies.
So if it works, could babies be grown entirely outside the womb?
Not anytime soon. Maybe not ever. In a paper published in 2022, Flake and his colleagues called this scenario “a technically and developmentally naive, yet sensationally speculative, pipe dream.” The problem is twofold. First, fetal development is a carefully choreographed process that relies on chemical communication between the pregnant parent’s body and the fetus. Even if researchers understood all the factors that contribute to fetal development—and they don’t—there’s no guarantee they could recreate those conditions.
The second issue is size. The artificial womb systems being developed require doctors to insert a small tube into the infant’s umbilical cord to deliver oxygenated blood. The smaller the umbilical cord, the more difficult this becomes.
What are the ethical concerns?
In the near term, there are concerns about how to ensure that researchers are obtaining proper informed consent from parents who may be desperate to save their babies. “This is an issue that comes up with lots of last-chance therapies,” says Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute.