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The Privacy Advisor | Trevor Noah warns of 'unintended consequences' of tech at GPS23 Related reading: US House commences proposed American Privacy Rights Act debate




Bestselling author and former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Trevor Noah, said the U.S. finds itself in a "precarious position" with respect to civic engagement and its collective ability to problem solve, as he warned Big Tech’s products carry "unintended consequences" that their manufacturers have often overlooked.

All technological advancements have created unintended consequences throughout history, Noah said at the Opening General Session of the IAPP Global Privacy Summit 2023 in Washington, D.C. 

"Whenever I think about technology advancements — how we think of any tool that affects society at large, I often think about how every object has the side that you see and the side that you cannot see," Noah said. "Oftentimes, the creators of tech see the side they want to see … But what they sometimes forget to do is look at the side of the object that they may not be seeing. Those are the pitfalls, those are the downfalls — the sides of the product that may, in some way, shape or form, hurt somebody."

Noah’s appearance was conducted as an interview with Center for Democracy & Technology President and CEO Alexandra Reeve Givens. The discussion centered around Noah’s 2016 New York Times bestseller "Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood," which chronicles his life growing up under the country’s system of apartheid, which ended when he was six years old in 1994.

Noah said the racist policies of the apartheid government were reinforced through technology used to surveil Black South Africans. He said the government operated a large network of informants, including his grandmother’s neighbor. Black citizens were required to carry passbooks that dictated "where they could or could not go, and when they could or could not go there … How they could exist, where they could exist," he said.

"That surveillance creates a pervasive distrust in society," Noah said. "What we experienced in South Africa, the apartheid government, was extremely efficient in the way they would apply their insidious ideas. They were really focused on technology, they were really focused on science, they were really focused on psychology, and you see this in many regimes around the world that oppress people."

Generally, Noah said, while there are fundamental differences between South Africa’s apartheid regime and the present state of the U.S., unchecked expansion of surveillance technology could one day create the conditions for more authoritative rule.

"South Africa's … initial obstacle was a government that was using surveillance and invading people's privacy to their ends," Noah said. He noted the U.S. differs in that many use surveillance technology to gain a "competitive advantage" or to solve a "social ill." He said "people don't realize often enough how it can be flipped on them."

Reeve Givens noted technologies such as facial recognition have already been used by U.S. authorities to surveil groups like Black Lives Matter protesters, as well as by police who made wrongful arrests because the system misidentified an innocent person as a suspect.

"As advocates, we’re warned about being 'Chicken Little' and the sky is falling. We’re always accused of exaggerating and people saying 'Well, it couldn’t happen here,'" she said. "And we point to (South Africa), an example from not very long ago in a society not all that different from some of the fundamental elements of U.S. society. If we want to show how we're different to Russia, or Iran, or the other countries that are using that tech today, let’s take a stand and show it by putting laws and policies in place to help bring (facial recognition) into check."

Noah, who has partnered with Microsoft for his youth-development nonprofit the Trevor Noah Foundation, said for privacy professionals at technology companies to succeed, their employers would be better served by returning to a "sustainable growth" model, not by seeing their customers as an additional commodity that can be monetized many times over beyond just the product they purchase.

"This is something that goes beyond privacy, people often have to think about sustainable growth —sustainable being the key word, because anything that has not grown sustainably will invariably burn out," Noah said. "We've lost this forward-thinking idea of keeping the tree healthy, so that we can keep bearing the fruits. Everybody who works in business always needs to consider the people who are buying your products … those people are, in many ways, the only reason you exist. So, if you think of squeezing every single thing out of them, they will invariably stop bearing fruits and turn on you.”

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  • comment Cristina Gilchrist • Apr 7, 2023
    Trevor Nash is brilliant, and I didn't realize how brilliant until I saw this talk. He is fantastic to listen to. I appreciated his insights, and where he comes from a background that I am unfamiliar with personally, it sheds light on areas I had not considered in data privacy. I hope the video is posted soon because I'd like to go back and listen again.