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Why frontier technologies will drive the fight against corruption

Why frontier technologies will drive the fight against corruption

Generating trust among all stakeholders is needed to reap the full benefits of frontier technologies for anti-corruption purposes. - Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto.

Written By

Daniel Malan
Assistant Professor in Business Ethics, Trinity Business School

Marlen Heide
Community Lead, Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), World Economic Forum

  • Frontier technologies promise to fundamentally change anti-corruption practices, making detection, prevention and risk management more efficient and effective.
  • However, technological innovations also carry integrity risks and might be abused for fraudulent purposes.
  • To truly reap the benefits of frontier technology for governance and anti-corruption, three fundamental tensions have to be addressed: privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of choice.

Frontier technology is described by the OECD as having the potential to “reshape industry and communications and provide urgently needed solutions to global challenges … and have the potential to displace existing processes.” The disruptive potential of technology is likely to change anti-corruption practices: algorithmic learning, artificial intelligence (AI), and big data analytics have been employed to improve efficiency and accuracy in predicting and identifying corruption risks or regulatory loopholes. Blockchains can help mitigate risk, reduce the role of intermediaries, and enhance trust.

Fighting corruption through frontier technologies

Technological innovations carry their own integrity challenges, however. At Trinity College Dublin, we recently looked at research about ethics and AI that has been published since 2015 in top business-related academic journals. Analysing the abstracts of 58 individual papers, it appeared that trust was the dominant theme, covered in 13 articles.

The analysis allowed us to distil three core tensions when considering the use of frontier technologies in the space of good governance and anti-corruption.

1. Privacy versus transparency

The modern information society is governed by a central tension between drives to promote transparency and open access to information, and a persistent need to safeguard privacy. Regarding anti-corruption efforts, this tension has again been illustrated very recently through a ruling of the EU Court of Justice stating that public access to beneficial ownership registries infringes fundamental individual rights. In contrast, the B20 Integrity and Compliance Task Force recommended in 2020 to implement digital public national registers to increase transparency around beneficial owners, thus acknowledging the importance of wider scrutiny.

When we talk about tech and data, we are also talking about human stories. We have a moral imperative to limit the impact and reach of corruption on peoples’ lives.

— Andrew Davies, Global Head of Regulatory Affairs, ComplyAdvantage.

The project Integrity Distributed, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in collaboration with ABinBev and Kona AI provides an interesting example of how to reap the benefits of information, while safeguarding privacy. The tool feeds on decentralised knowledge about high-risk transactions without sharing the underlying data – it is 25% more likely to predict improper payments.

2. Freedom of speech versus protecting human dignity

Human dignity is closely linked to people’s right to expression, however, both values might come into conflict from time to time. Today’s social media platforms facilitate the exchange of opinion, while at the same time amplifying reputational risk, even for normal citizens, through misrepresentation or public shaming.

As long as large parts of the population don’t have access to technology and remain unconnected, and governments continue to work in non-digital formats, it will be hard to integrate technology against corruption.

— Cheri-Leigh Erasmus, Global Director of Learning, Accountability Lab.

At the same time, people’s inability to participate in online debates, due to a persisting digital divide, undermines their ability to leverage civic voices, participation, and accountability. In 2021, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimated that 37% of the world’s population had never used the internet – and many who do use the internet have only irregular access.

3. Freedom of choice versus the need to ensure human autonomy

Finally, the broader implementation of AI raises concerns about people’s freedom of choice. This has been underlined specifically regarding e-commerce – think for instance about concerns that Amazon recommendations manipulate people into making purchasing decisions.

These aspects also challenge the role of technology for anti-corruption. There is considerable scepticism as to whether technologies can or should replace the human factor, notably regarding creating public trust, widely regarded as the currency of integrity.

Equally, data is the fuel that drives technology, but non-curated data will be overwhelming and unusable. Equally, technologies might be applied for fraudulent purposes, undermining integrity rather than promoting it.

To counter these challenges, Andrew Davies from ComplyAdvantage, suggests collecting only as much data as necessary and ensure to limit the inclusion of data that would create biases in the analysis. At the same time, digital education is critical to provide people and organizations with sufficient autonomy to make decisions. In return, this might enhance trust and autonomy of individuals using frontier technologies.

Building trust is key

From an ethical perspective, technology is agnostic. It can be applied with equal levels of effectiveness and impact by forces for both good and evil. It is therefore useful to make a distinction between the integrity challenges associated with new technology (integrity of tech), and the application of technology to advance integrity (tech for integrity).

Technology continues to develop at unabated speed and new tools will continue to be launched in this space. Generating trust among all stakeholders is needed to reap the full benefits of frontier technologies for anti-corruption purposes. This requires responsible use of data, as well as collective action to level-up analytical capabilities and to address concerns in a transparent way. If we can achieve purposeful and responsible development and application of technologies, the solutions will stick.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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