Support the Guardian

Available for everyone, funded by readers

Council takes 'cautious' AI approach

Council takes 'cautious' AI approach
Hamish Riach

AI technology has great potential but carries equally potential risks, chief executive Hamish Riach says.

The development of AI technology presents a mixture of exciting potential and concern about security in its application, with the Ashburton District Council introducing an internal AI policy, Riach said.

“It doesn’t preclude use (of AI) but it does put a number of restrictions in place, one of which is not to have it on council devices because of potential risk.”

Councillors were advised, under the new policy, not to have applications like Chat GPT on any of their council devices, and they shouldn’t use council email addresses to sign up for AI either, information systems manager Gordon Tupper said.

The policy is to attempt to safeguard council systems from any possible breach.

Riach was aware of incidents elsewhere where reports had been created at councils using AI technology without management’s knowledge or approval, which carried risk.

Any breach of private information would be reported immediately to the audit and risk committee, he said.

The discussion around AI occurred on the same day a spam email supposedly from the Mayor did the rounds at the council, which prompted Mayor Neil Brown to request a cybersecurity update workshop for councillors.

Councillor Richard Wilson questioned at the activity briefing meeting last week if the council felt its information was fully protected with the emergence of AI.

Cybersecurity was an active and constant area of activity, Tupper said.

“Nothing is secure 100%. We are trying to avoid any breach, any misuse, any leak of information.

“It’s a balance between locking the door and being able to use the door when you wish to.”

“We take steps to make sure we position council as best we can.”

AI is an exciting prospect but for now, it needs a cautious approach, Tupper said.

“There are vast opportunities for us to improve and build on our services, to help us do the heavy lifting so that we can afford more time for the things that need more time.”

The caution is that “these systems are trained to learn” and if it was given access to the council system it may become outside the user's control, Tupper warned.

“There is no doubt the next stage in technology development will bring benefits to not only council but individuals and businesses.

“How we use that is still being determined."

By Jonathan Leask