Georgetown Law Technology Review Hosts Symposium on ‘Data’s Invisible Impacts’
March 8, 2022
The use of data drives nearly every function of our technological society, from health care to policing. Determining what data is collected, and how it is gathered, interpreted and shared, has a profound impact on both individual rights and democratic governance.
On January 28 — National Data Privacy Day — the Georgetown Law Technology Review convened its biennial symposium to tackle some of the biggest issues concerning data use and its often unseen effects. “Data’s Invisible Impacts: The Hidden Uses and Consequences of Data in the Information Age” was presented in partnership with Georgetown’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy, the journal’s host organization.
In planning the event, the journal’s editors invited speakers with a wide range of expertise – and not all were lawyers.
“We really wanted to bring together multiple perspectives. That’s critical in pushing the tech policy conversation forward,” said journal editor-in-chief Panya Gupta (L’22). “For example, we had Julie Mao, the deputy director of Just Futures Law, who is thinking about issues related to data use in policing and immigration from a policy and litigation perspective.”
Symposium editor Ian Carrico (L’22) said he was especially pleased to have Margo Anderson, a distinguished professor emerita of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, as a panelist.
“She’s been looking at the census from a historical perspective,” Carrico explained. “There are some really fascinating questions over how census data is used. And there’s a lot of data to be gleaned that until very recently we didn’t have the technical prowess to investigate.”
Other panelists included New York University economist Julia Lane and Professor Craig Konnoth of the University of Virginia Law School, an expert on health data regulation.
“We’re used to hearing about how Facebook, TransUnion and others are tracking our data. We wanted to look underneath the surface layer,” said Carrico.
‘A BLACK-BOX WORLD’
Professor Laura Moy, director of Georgetown Law’s Communications & Technology Law Clinic, moderated the first panel of the day: “The Impact of Public-Private Data Sharing on Law Enforcement.” The conversation centered around the use of data provided by unregulated third parties — including LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters — by all levels of law enforcement, from local police to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Data policing happens in a black-box, opaque world. There really are no restraints on what these contractors can do,” said panelist Sarah Lamdan, a law professor at the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming book “Data Cartels” (Stanford University Press). “At the very top of the business value pyramid, these companies tell the police what to do, who to track, who to arrest, who to deny parole.”
Lamdan proposed updating an existing tool to tackle the issue, the Privacy Act of 1974. “We could reinvigorate the Privacy Act to improve due process,” she said. “It could improve transparency because it requires public notice about any sort of data collection. And it improves data quality in notoriously biased data sets by allowing us to correct our data.”
Advances in data collection have fueled an ever-growing tension between individual privacy and the needs of society, a topic raised in the symposium’s second panel, “Governance with Data and Problems of Differential Access,” moderated by Georgetown law professor Tanina Rostain.
The issue is by no means new: in her discussion of the U.S. census, Margo Anderson cited an example from the 1920s, when the General Federation of Women’s Clubs successfully lobbied to obtain census lists of illiterate citizens for a targeted campaign combating illiteracy. “What I keep thinking about as I hear this debate is that we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said Anderson, who currently serves on the Committee of National Statistics evaluating the quality of the 2020 census.
In a complementary presentation, Margaret Kwoka, Lawrence Herman Professor of Law at The Ohio State University, focused on the Freedom of Information Act as a means of determining what ordinary citizens want and should have access to in terms of government-collected data.
“My research shows that overwhelmingly, individuals are using FOIA to get access to their own records,” Kwoka said. “Access is crucial for many individuals in trying to make their best case in the face of an impending government decision.”
But in many instances, as Kwoka noted, information is redacted or the requester does not receive necessary files until long after a deportation hearing or other critical action. “This shows a real data access justice gap,” she said. She recommended the adoption of an external oversight model used in many other countries to address concerns with immediacy and transparency.
DEMOCRATIZING DATA PRACTICES
The symposium’s final panel, “Governance with Data and Problems of Democracy,” was moderated by Georgetown’s Julie Cohen, the Mark Claster Mamolen Professor of Law and Technology, and featured her colleague Brishen Rogers among the panelists.
In his presentation, Rogers — author of the forthcoming “Rethinking the Future of Work: Law, Technology, and Economic Citizenship” (MIT University Press) — laid out evidence on how private companies are exploiting control over data to suppress what he calls “workers’ associational power.”
As an example, he cited the use of data-driven technologies to break down production into more discrete tasks that reduce employees’ individual discretion and make them subject to greater control. “Amazon warehouse workers are overseen by entire suites of AI-powered devices, trackers at their workstations and video monitoring programs, and their performance of particular tasks is measured down to the 10th of a second,” he said.
The reforms he proposed involve reallocating power from companies to workers. “We should democratize data practices, especially by giving workers rights to bargain over the implementation of new forms of technology,” he said. “Part of the goal here is to encourage a higher-wage and higher-productivity economy overall, which is what I think we need on a number of levels.”
The symposium concluded with remarks from Georgetown Tech Institute executive director April Falcon Doss, who joined the institute in 2021 following a decade-long tenure at the National Security Agency.
Wrapping up the day’s events, she struck a note of optimism in her remarks. “We’ve got all manner of solution sets to look at,” Doss said. “Among my favorites, in the context of data and democracy in particular, is looking at really creative ways to encourage a better-educated citizenry.
“One of my pet projects is the creation of a new ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ for online living,” she said. “We know from the research that people who are most likely to fall victim to amplification of disinformation online are people who are in older generations. So, educating people about online life is not just a K-through-12 task.