C of E’s tech investment to go under the spotlight

03 January 2020

Ethical Investment group to scrutinise the ‘rapidly evolving and controversial’ area

DIOCESE OF OXFORD

THE Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG) is to conduct a year-long review of the Church of Eng­land’s investments in technology, it has been announced.

A spokesman for the C of E said at the end of last month: “Some argue that tech has brought enormous bene­­fits to society, but others note a growing realisation of the limitations and downsides of technology.”

As a result, the EIAG will conduct a review of the “rapidly evolving and increasingly controversial area”, the spokesman said. The news was initially reported by The Daily Tele­graph. The review will look at artifi­cial intelligence (AI), an “im­­portant part” of the examination of the C of E’s investment.

In 2018, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, (pictured, in a photo released by the diocese) said that AI should be shaped by a “strong ethical base” led by the UK. He was a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on AI (News, 27 April 2018).

There was “immense potential for good” in AI, Dr Croft wrote, such as driving up productivity levels and allowing for advances for medicine; but also “significant risks”, such as the way in which personal data might be manipulated.

The C of E spokesman said: “The EIAG is in the process of talking
to theologians, industry specialists from the big tech companies, as well as politicians, civil groups, and asset managers to try to make sense of the issues, so that we can offer ethical investment advice that is not only grounded in theology and distinctly Anglican, but is also practical: i.e. enabling the Church to be active and responsible stewards of all their investment assets.”

Fears have grown in recent years about the control over people’s lives held by the biggest technology com­pa­nies, in particular Google, Face­book, Amazon, Apple, and Micro­soft. All have attracted criticism over privacy concerns.

Google has admitted tracking Android phone-user’s locations even with that facility switched off; Amazon con­firmed last year that its employees listen to some Alexa con­versations. Facebook was involved in the Cam­bridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that an app was able to harvest personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent.

As argued by Professor Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, technology companies constantly monitor our data, from emails to photos, and then target advertising accordingly.

The companies have also attracted criticism over their tax records. In 2018, the Church Commissioners defended holding a multi-million-pound stake in Amazon Inc, despite the Arch­bishop of Canterbury hav­ing ac­­cused the company of “paying al­­most nothing in tax” (News, 21 September 2018).

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