medConfidential spoke about the Framework for Data Processing by Government at the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Rule of Law. The topic of the APPG provides a useful perspective for much work on data in the public sector, and the wider use of AI by anyone. The meeting was on the same day as the launch of the AI Select Committee Report, which addresses similar key issues of ‘data ethics’.
The ‘Rule of Law’ is defined in 8 principles as identified by Lord Bingham. The principles are not themselves law, but rather describe the process that must be followed for the Rule of Law to be respected.
Public bodies must already follow that process, and also be able to show how that process has been followed. As a result, those developing AIs (and data processing tools) for use by public bodies must also show how these processes have been followed. This is necessary to satisfy the lawful obligations of the bodies to which they are trying to sell services.
The principles identified by Lord Bingham are a model for testing whether an explanation of an AI and its output, or a data model, is sufficient for use by a public body.
While debates on ethics and society, and on politics and policy, focus on whether a technology should be used – the Rule of Law is about the evidence for and integrity of that debate. As Departments implement the Framework for data processing, to deliver on their obligations under the Rule of Law, it must be compliant with the Principles identified by Lord Bingham – not just the ethics and policies of the Minister in charge that day.
Public bodies are already bound by these rules – unless Parliament legislates to escape them. The principles are widely understood, they are testable, and they are implementable in a meaningful way by all necessary parties, with significant expertise available to aid understanding.
Companies and other non-public bodies
Companies (i.e. non-public bodies) are not subject to the same legal framework as public bodies. A Public Body must be able to cite in law the powers it uses; a Private Body may do (almost) anything that is not prohibited by law. This is why facebook’s terms and conditions are so vague and let it get away with almost anything – such a data model does not apply to the tax office.
Some of those looking to make money – to “move fast and break things” – would like the standard to be ethics, and ethics alone. There are currently many groups and centres having money poured into them, with names involving ‘data and society’, ‘ethics and society’, and DCMS’s own ‘Centre for Data Ethics’. The latter is led by a Minister in a Government that will always have political priorities, and – given recent revelations about Facebook – the consequences of incentives to lower standards should be very clear.
Ethics may contribute to whether something should be done – but they are not binding on how it is done, and they offer no actual accountability. After all, no tyrant ever failed to justify their actions; it is the rule of law that ultimately holds them accountable, and leads to justice for those harmed. Ethics alone do not suffice, as facebook and others have recently shown.
There is a great deal more work to do in this area. But unlike other AI ‘ethics’ standards which seek to create something so weak no-one opposes it, the existing standards and conventions of the Rule of Law are well known and well understood, and provide real and meaningful scrutiny of decisions – assuming an entity believes in the Rule of Law.
The question to companies and public bodies alike is therefore simple: Do you believe in the Rule of Law?