Alumni Interview with Maria Carnovale

This interview was conducted over email with Maria Carnovale, a Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of the Harvard Kennedy School, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Carnovale received her PhD in Public Policy from Duke in 2018.

What has been your path to your current position?

I like to believe that it all started in high school when I came across the work of Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom) and Muhamad Yunus (the founder of the Grameen Bank that proved the power of microcredit). I knew then that I wanted to study economics, and so I did. However, the fairness considerations that were so strong in the writings of those two authors had not yet seeped into the way economics was taught at the time, at least in Italy where I was studying. That side of my education continued outside of my formal learning mostly as a hobby that at the time I was seeing as a thought-provoking waste of time.

But an internship at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva proved me wrong. For me, that was a transformative experience. When thinking about policies, the discussion at the Human Rights Council did not stop at “how is it working?” or “what are its effects?” but made a step forward toward: “are we okay with those effects?” While I appreciated the power of the tools that economics was providing, I knew that I wanted to continue engaging with those normative questions too.

So, I pursued a PhD program in Public Policy at Duke. I was drawn by Sanford’s interdisciplinary approach: it actively brings together expertise from most social sciences. But I found out that interdisciplinarity has a cost: when you engage with people outside of your field, you need to step up your communication game. For me, that meant growing as a writer. As a foreigner whose English skills grew as a byproduct of an education in economics, I did not even know that some expressions meant little outside of my field. I took all the opportunities available to improve my writing skills. The ComSciCon network proved an especially supportive and welcoming environment for that purpose.

Now I wear different hats. I am an educator (currently teaching at Duke), a writer (focusing on technology policy), and a researcher (a Technology and Human Rights Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School).

Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?

I am very curious about trade-offs among values. For instance, as both individuals and a society, we value privacy, health, and safety. They are all important components of our wellbeing. However, what happens when those values collide? What happens if facial recognition can make us safer, but impinges on our privacy on a large scale? What happens if to protect our health and the health of our community we need to give up private information to public health institutions? We continuously make those trade-offs, either willingly or unwillingly, aware or unaware. The immense amount of data that digital and predictive technology can collect and process has heightened the scale of the problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that thinking about rights in an absolute way can become a liability when we need to apply them, especially at a time of crisis when policy decisions are fast and uncertain. A necessary part of the discussion is framing those rights in a way that minimize those trade-offs (like reframing the concept of privacy), thinking about the conditions that make those trade-offs reasonable (like setting accountability mechanisms), and considering what makes people willing to accept those trade-offs (like trust in institutions).

How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

Applying the concept of fairness can often feel like swimming upstream. Inequality being systemic implies that when opposing it, you are going against the current. That is hard, it would be much easier to go along. It is evident in a lot of different areas. When companies want to be conscious, they often must revisit their business model in a market that still values low prices. Inclusivity calls into question institutions’ hiring and management practices. That can be costly. It also challenges common measures of success potentially misaligning with the requirements of traditional donors or investors. Fairness is only attainable when explicitly accounting for its costs and if personal and institutional objectives mirror that goal. I try to keep that in mind when I embark on a new project.

Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues?

There is always room for improvement. I think there is a translational trend of ethics into policymaking and companies’ practices. For instance, more than 80 ethical standards are available to guide the development and use of technology. These standards provide guidelines in many domains, like privacy in the era of big data, the supervision of social media, or limiting biases in AI systems. When they are used by companies, they can have profound impacts on our everyday life. A roadblock, however, is their uniform interpretation and implementation. The universal nature of human rights can offer an effective framework for this translational effort.

How has COVID impacted your work?

A rapidly spreading disease like COVID-19 has compelled many countries to make use of technological solutions. Among those, digital contact tracing apps are common, but highly controversial. Beyond issues of privacy, effectiveness, and unequal access, there are also two basic challenges to their implementation. Some public health departments lack the infrastructure to make technology a part of their daily activities, either because they do not have the required technical skills or because they are constrained by a regulatory framework that does not move as fast as technology. Yet, they were (sometimes blindly) seeking the shiny promises of technological solutions and they often relied on external contractors for the provision of technological services like digital contact tracing.

Both issues create challenges. Limited technological expertise increases the probability of the technology being misused with implications for people’s wellbeing. The private companies that provide support are often for-profit and respond to incentives that are different from mere public welfare. To bridge that gap, I joined the Institute for Technology and Global Health, a nonprofit think tank that, like the name suggests, studies the application of technology to public health. Its mission is to connect rigorous and interdisciplinary research with implementation by public actors and private institutions, exploring the social, ethical, and policy consequences of those implementations. We strive to ensure that research influences policymaking and that it is informed by the experiences and needs of the actors on the ground.

What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?

Avoid thinking about your career in a unidimensional fashion as we are often taught to do. You might be asked to choose between being a professor, or an engineer, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or an artist, or an athlete, or… But there is no reason why we should use the conjunction “or.” The most interesting people that I know have been different things at different points in their lives. I think it is more fulfilling and it also produces a more unique professional profile.