What Automatic Organ Donation Opt-In Policies Can Teach Us About The Collective Benefits, And Risks Of Communal Device Networks
In this article we will discuss:
How ‘automated opt-ins’ are positively influencing organ donations, and saving lives
As of May, 2020 all adults in England were automatically ‘opted-in’ as organ donors when they pass away. This policy treats consent as a secondary priority to the greater good (i.e. a severe lack of healthy organs available for transplant).
According to The Guardian, 80% of Brits have a ‘willingness to donate’, yet in practice only about 40% actually sign the necessary documentation. To give you an idea of what this means in terms of human lives, consider the following numbers:
– 6,000 people are on the organ transplant list in the U.K. every year
– 400 die due to a lack of matching/available organs
– According to The Spanish Ministry of Health, they currently have ~47 organ donors per million individuals with their automated opt-in system in place
– England, by contrast, was at roughly half that number with ~24 donations per million on average with their prior ‘active opt-in approach’
With these in mind, I think almost everyone in the world would agree that organ donation is a positive thing. The major points of disagreement come in the form of:
- Ownership over one’s body and related decisions
- Control over who the receiver of a donation is
These debate topics share stark commonalities, in principle, with the technology discourse regarding personal user device opt-ins (not to save lives, of course) as we will point out later in this piece.
Big tech giants creating communal ‘opt-out’ digital networks
Amazon, and Apple are creating two different communal networks, which are different in the way they are built, and the purpose they serve. The one similarity between the two, is that much like new organ donation legislation, users are automatically opted into the network, and need to actively opt-out. Here is a brief on the two programs in question for context:
One: Apple AirTags
Apple AirTags were essentially created in order to help apple device owners track their personal items like pocketbooks, keys, and wallets using an attachable tag. Much like with the ‘find my phone’ function, Apple is using its 1 billion device global presence to create a network that will allow tags, and devices to freely communicate with one another. Using Bluetooth signals all members of the network will be able to ‘ping’ Bluetooth-enabled devices without first asking permission from the device owner. This essentially means that Apple is creating a ‘semi-public’ Bluetooth-device communication network, where apple device owners are automatically opted-in. The right to opt-out exists but requires active steps by device owners.
Two: Amazon Sidewalk
Amazon Sidewalk is a geolocation Wi-Fi sharing network based on Amazon products owned by users such as the ‘Echo’ or ‘Ring Video Doorbell, basically, a network-driven neighborhood’. This will enable smoother device functionality even when a given device is out of range from its home-base. This is due to the fact that devices will be able to tap into other peer device networks in order to ensure maximum functionality, and network connectivity. Similar to Apple’s AirTags, by not opting-out, this program assumes device owners’ willingness to participate in this ‘semi-public’ network.
Both of these programs, have the ‘common good’ in mind yet, much like with the organ donation debate, which undoubtedly aims to save lives, the question still arises:
Should users be able to maintain their right to opt-in to this ‘common-good network’ or since its merits have already been ‘decided upon’ by big tech, do users need to accept this new ‘opt-out’ as reality? Are the common benefits clear to all, and do they justify this newly created reality?
The pros, and cons of technology imitating health legislation policies
The pros of an ‘opt out’ brand wide network are pretty apparent. Instead of having to individually ask each, and every ‘network member’, the company can create a huge, powerful network overnight.
This benefits users, as they can utilize each others’ resources to find lost items (in the case of Apple Airtags), and always enjoy undisrupted services such as automated deliveries (in the Amazon Sidewalk case scenario).
On the corporate side, companies benefit from this as they can use it as a foundation to develop product lines, and services which make use of this network of peer devices.
The cons are also pretty apparent. This type of approach, much like organ donation, can violate user rights in the following ways.
No matter how beneficial a program is, shouldn’t consent serve as the foundation for any network that wants to create a sustainable community based on mutual trust, and democratic values of sharing?
Making a device part of a ‘semi-public’ network requires users to share their resources with strangers which may bring to light concerns over information privacy. Amazon, and Apple are ensuring complete anonymity, and security at the highest levels – but if they believe so strongly in their capabilities to keep user information safe, shouldn’t they invest in a campaign explaining how network security will be carried out? And why you should choose to opt-in?
At the end of the day, device owners have ‘ownership’ over the hardware in their possession – shouldn’t tech companies who at the outset willingly accepted consumer cash in exchange for devices respect property ownership rights?
Members may also be concerned over who is on the other side of a given network. They may be concerned that ill-intentioned people are making use of their devices’ resources. In their view this makes them complicit, at best, and an accomplice, at worst. Why not let device owners decide how much perceived risk they are willing to take? Or explain why these scenarios are highly unlikely, nay impossible, due to ongoing operational security efforts, and network monitoring carried out by dedicated compliance teams, and automated security systems?
The bottom line
Organ donation legislation, and communal technology networks are eons away from one another. Yet the uncanny similarities between the ‘opt-in’ / ‘opt-out’ debate seems hard to ignore. I think the question we should all be asking ourselves is:
Do the benefits of shared ‘opt-out’ networks outweigh the risks, and can the same ‘ends’ be accomplished with the ‘means’ of user consent?