Can We Trust Our Artificial Eyes?

Wojciech Wiewiórowski

Every group of trainees that comes to work with us at the EDPS organises their own conference on a topic of interest. These events are a platform for the younger generation to share fresh – and sometimes provocative! – ideas. For this conference, the team chose a timely and exciting subject – the potential consequences of technological enhancements to our bodies for human rights and privacy.
Human enhancement is quickly moving into the centre of public debate, both due to academic discussion and technological developments reaching the popular consciousness, and through pop culture, which confronts us with visions of potential future paths for our society – both inspiring and disturbing.
Human enhancement aims to extend our capabilities through technology. Some see human enhancement as the next step in human evolution. There is plenty of space for speculation and exaggeration of course, but in a very real sense, the definition of humanity is at stake.

Transhumanism is a controversial topic, not just as a sci-fi caricature, but as a concept within the world of philosophy and ethics. The topic of digital ethics has been high on the EDPS agenda since the launch of the EDPS Ethics Initiative in 2015. In 2018 we had the privilege to host the 40th edition of the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners, for which we chose Digital Ethics as the main topic of discussion, while more recently we launched our #DebatingEthics Conversations podcast series. The question of how to respond to transhumanism could soon become one of the central problems in policymaking across a range of sectors.

Think, for example, about our eyes, the inspiration for this event’s title. If our vision is technologically enhanced with features that involve the capture or distribution of data, such as a camera or a visual information display, can we trust that those who have access to this data will use it responsibly with regard to privacy and cybersecurity? This is an area of human enhancement that is already in development; early smart glasses technology can be seen as a first step in this direction.
A world in which human bodies are enhanced with digital technologies is likely to lead to a new range of challenges for data protection and privacy, with legal questions that could be difficult to resolve decisively using existing frameworks.
There are already devices on the market that enhance human abilities and, as part of this, collect vast amounts of data. This data is inherently personal – it comes directly from our own bodies. We need to assess precisely whether the controlling and processing of such data can still be effectively regulated using existing legal instruments, or if additional approaches are needed to better protect people’s privacy.

As another example, Deep Brain Stimulation technology has already been used for 20 years as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease, and continues to become more and more technically sophisticated. Electrodes are implanted in the brain to mitigate the symptoms of the disease, and while this arguably does not constitute a true influence on the conscious mind, these techniques demonstrate how we are quickly moving in this direction. The path towards digital manipulation is coming into view, and is rapidly moving from the pages of sci-fi novels into serious papers by top lawyers and ethicists.
The surveillance, control and profiling of individuals is a major concern, because the spread of the Internet of Things has the potential to create a world in which devices and human beings become part of a global interconnected system. Some EU member states are already seeing citizens implant computer chips in their bodies in order to make seamless cash-free transactions. So we could be so intensively immersed in the digital world that we become “networked individuals”, capable of consciously or unconsciously sending and receiving signals, with our movements, habits, relationships and all other forms of personal data remotely processed. How will data protection by design and by default look in this context?

Our individual rights and fundamental freedoms need to be at the centre of this discussion. Moreover, the discussion cannot be limited to the field of data protection. We need people with diverse backgrounds, expertise and nationalities to work together on this. The range of perspectives represented on today’s panel is an excellent example. Only together can we build a digital society worthy of our highest ideals.
Last week, the EDPS “Cartoon Introduction to Digital Ethics” was named one of the top four projects for Communication in the EU Ombudsman’s Good Administration Awards, standing alongside other worthy projects. A good moment, then, to revisit the final line from the book:

“To create a bright future, we need hardware, and we need software. But we also need moralware.”

We face innovations that could transform the capabilities of our bodies and minds in ways that we can neither predict nor fully control. Our best hope to manage this coming revolution certainly requires technological and legislative solutions. But these need a moral backbone – based in digital ethics.