With an antique lamp perched above his shoulder, The Tyee’s web director Bryan Carney pulled out a CD-ROM to show us the standard medium for receiving federal FOI data.
He needs an external disc drive to run it. Laptops of the past decade just don’t come with the now-antiquated technology.
As our director of web production and an investigative reporter on issues of technology and privacy, Carney was our latest interview on Three Things, a livestream series where we get to learn a little bit about our team.
Carney had big issues to discuss: the concentration of power in big tech, policy technology accountability and the crisis in freedom of information.
All have been compounded by the pandemic.
After taking a sip of water from an oversized glass, Carney noted how much we’re online during the pandemic, as many of us work from home and rely even more on technology to connect.
We’re “undergoing a massive experiment in the sheer number of hours people are spending online,” he said.
In the not-so-distant past, our face-to-face interactions still balanced the digital ones harvested for algorithms by the internet heavyweights Google, Facebook and Amazon.
“There were still a lot of opportunities to have exchanges that weren’t influenced by those companies,” he said.
Now all that time online has given the heavyweights unprecedented power and access to our data.
But we’re not powerless. Carney suggested we ask ourselves about the kind of content we’re seeing online, be critical about what we’re participating in and think about how we might want to change our behaviour.
He also examined another aspect of online safety and surveillance: policy use of technology and privacy.
We have measures to assess the use of these technologies, such as federal privacy impact assessments. These are supposed to provide the regulatory infrastructure to let government gauge the privacy transparency of a technology before it’s introduced.
The policy around impact assessments exists, but it’s not legally enforced, and is routinely bypassed or delayed. If a technology “hasn’t passed this test that we designed, then it shouldn’t be possible to use it on citizens at all,” he said.
Something else that’s slipped away under the cover of the pandemic: citizens’ access to freedom of information. Limited government staffing has led to a backup, and the response time for FOI requests is longer than ever before, Carney said.
The pursuit of an FOI wasn’t easy before the pandemic, he said, and now it’s worse.
“There’s definitely a slowing to access that kind of information that enables people to participate in democracy,” he said. “It’s a very important part of your ability to understand what your government it up to.”
Carney said that citizens have a right to the tools, and the access, that they need to participate. His solution? More proactive disclosure, where the information would be available to us even before we ask for it.