Brad Smith and the Tools & Weapons book

The world’s reached a turning point on data and privacy, says Microsoft President Brad Smith

The world is at a turning point as people demand more control over the technology they use and their data, the President of Microsoft has said at an event in London. 

Brad Smith pointed to how global scandals involving social media companies and governments over the past decade have made the public much more protective of their personal information and how it is used. 

The Microsoft executive was in the UK to talk about his new book, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, which he has written with Carol Ann Browne, Senior Director of External Relations and Communications at Microsoft. 

The book looks at how the development of technology will continue to have a major, positive impact on people’s lives across the world, but there will be downsides that need to be addressed. Smith and Browne believe that Microsoft needs to do more to take responsibility for the products they create, and they call on other companies to do the same. They also shine a light on how innovation in the sector is impacting security, privacy and democracy. 

We’ve reached an inflection point in terms of the public having concerns,” Smith told the audience. “The bloom is off the rose in terms of the public view of technology and the technology sector. That means the time has come to really address these issues [and] to have a broad conversation that is really very difficult. 

Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne in the Microsoft Store in London

Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne in the Microsoft Store in London

He said the focus of the public’s anger had shifted in recent years. The “guns had turned” from pointing at governments and how they collect people’s data to technology companies and how they target individuals using personal information. 

Smith proposed that part of the solution was to truly democratise data. 

He said: That means two different things. One is the right of every one of us as individuals to retain our own rights in our own data; and to think about the cloud and large data centres in which data is stored as places where we in the tech sector need to act as stewards of people’s data and protect people’s data. I think the first aspect of democratising data is recognising that it belongs to individuals. 

“The second part is the need for what we see as an open data revolution. I think there’s a real risk, especially in a world focused on artificial intelligence, that the winners will be the companies or countries that have the largest datasets. One of the things we share insight on is just how AI is developed and why it has come together the way it has. 

“An AI developer can never have too much data. The bigger the data set, the easier it is to improve their algorithms. This creates the risk that there will be faster returns to scale, a transfer of economic power and wealth to a small number of companies. If so, they will probably be tech companies on the west coast of the United States and the east coast of China.

Brad Smith at the Microsoft Store in London

Brad Smith at the Microsoft Store in London

“What we want is a situation where every company in every industry is now more data intensive and can reap the benefits of its own data. We see a future where people can share data without losing ownership of it or their privacy rights.” 

Addressing the issue of privacy, Smith, who has been at Microsoft for 26 years, said he had never seen a policy issue “explode as quickly as facial recognition. The technology allows faces captured on CCTV to be checked in real time against watch lists. Its use by police forces and governments has proved controversial, with privacy campaigners saying it is vulnerable to bias.  

Smith, who has previously blogged about the risks of facial recognition technology, said there were improvements that still needed to be made. Issues of commercial privacy, with people being “followed” and recognised in every shop they went into, and democratic freedom still had to be solved, too. 

It is one of a number of global technological innovations that requires more regulation from governments, Smith told the London event. However, he said politicians needed to “move faster” and work with administrations in other countries, as well as technology companies, non-profits, human rights organisations and civil society at large, to find a solution. 

We believe the problems of technology can only be solved by governments working together,” Smith said. 

Brad Smith with Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK CEO, and Microsoft Store staff in London

Brad Smith with Cindy Rose, Microsoft UK CEO, and Microsoft Store staff in London

Those problems also include the weaponisation of technology and its automation, extremist content online, foreign intervention in elections and disinformation. Microsoft has previously announced tools to counter some of these issues, such as ElectionGuard, which makes voting secure, more accessible and more efficient. 

Smith believes that Governments will do the right thing and come together to ensure that technology is mainly used as a positive force in people’s lives. 

“We are facing headwinds in the short term but in the long term I have faith in great democratic nations,” he said. Regardless of our differences, we enjoy the freedoms and liberties we have today because the people who came before us came together to protect democracy. I think we will rise and meet this need. 

Microsoft creates products and services to serve humanity. There is a promising way forward. Let’s talk about how we protect people’s privacy and ensure people remain in control.”