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Bravery to overcome bias

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner rejects racism and discrimination - conscious or unconscious, subtle or explicit. There is no place for such actions in our modern world.

We are proud to be an office established for the defense of rights, specifically the right to privacy. Privacy is often defined in terms of respect or dignity, of placing individuals in control of their lives, and of preventing arbitrary decisions made based on a person's statistics. A principle of mutual respect should be central to all aspects of our relationships.

The Personal Information Protection Act 2016 (PIPA), which established this office, states that any time personal data is used, an organisation must contemplate the nature of the data and the risk of harm to the individual that could arise from the use of the data. Then, it goes further, stating that certain details have a particular risk of harm, and it matters when an organisation uses these forms of data - this "sensitive personal information" is important enough to have explicit protections, forbidding its use in a way that would violate the Human Rights Act 1981.

"Sensitive personal information" means any personal information relating to an individual’s place of origin, race, colour, national or ethnic origin, sex, sexual orientation, sexual life, marital status, physical or mental disability, physical or mental health, family status, religious beliefs, political opinions, trade union membership, biometric information or genetic information. PIPA Section 7(1).

Privacy is an enabling right, important for a variety of social functions, including democracy itself. Democracy is famous for its principle of majority rule: the idea that the will of the people should govern decisions, not an individual or set of rulers.

Less commonly cited is the second pillar of democracy, one that is every bit as critical to the successful functioning of democratic societies: the principle of minority rights. Once a democratic decision has been made according to the will of the majority, individuals outside that group must receive protections, a baseline of rights that cannot be infringed simply by popular vote.

We must always ensure that there is a right to dissent, a right to have an unpopular opinion, a right to be different from the majority of other people but not be treated differently from them. An individual may even have to exercise a measure of privacy in order that these alternative views are not prejudicial. Privacy helps individuals control the face they show the world. Institutions like mine and other public and private groups are built to protect these individuals and these groups from discrimination and bias.

In some ways, the struggle against bias is only natural. Our brains are bias machines, a fact only exacerbated by conscious decisions and historical precedents. Our human pattern recognition skill is likely what differentiated us from other animals, but it has its limits. We form sweeping judgments on a population based on a single individual, or a first impression. We see anecdotal events and create patterns. We disregard the “noise,” or the things that happen all the time, looking only for the differences.

The history of Bermuda, like America, is littered with examples of conscious, willful forms of discrimination. Over time, even these realities can start to become the noise. Even when these events consist of blatant unfairness and injustice - not despite but because they are recurring and systemic - they fade and are no longer noticed. It becomes the air we move in.

As technology has allowed us to see more examples and process more and broader patterns, technologies have also provided us with the empirical tools that make the flaws obvious to all parties. We can measure the reality in absolute terms.

Sometimes our tech even reflects the realities back at us. When AI [artificial intelligence] algorithms collect data on the world to inform their decision-making, they start to demonstrate the biases of the programmers or input data, tending to descend into racist, abusive social media bots or identifying individuals with darker shades of skin as non-human. The speed and extremity of these algorithms' descents shocks us into seeing those aspects of the world.

Our brains don’t like to reset their schemas. Perhaps it was once evolutionarily beneficial to have firm opinions, but the result is that we resist reconsidering. Once an impression is formed, it is harder than ever to change it, and even attempts to argue with us only make us dig in our heels.

How can we ever improve?

It’s hard work, and hard work that each and every person has to do, every day. We have to look within ourselves, ask whether we treat others fairly. We have to see the world, and question it, and act according to values of fairness and respect. We have to be brave.

Too often, a modern society is defined by its fears and the steps people will take to protect themselves. Here in Bermuda, there in America, and everywhere else, we have to open up to our friends and neighbours, see them and their problems, offer to help, and work every day on becoming better. It may be hard, it may be scary, but we have to be brave enough to look into ourselves, and brave enough to change.

Alexander McD White

Privacy Commissioner

To reach out to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, please visit our Contact Us page.


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