Data protection and privacy … getting it all right
Lately I’ve been talking data. Big data, and the big jobs of making it usable, and making it shareable. Now it’s time to talk about what might be the most important areas of all in the data space — privacy and protection.
We need to talk about it because it affects you. It affects you, it affects your sense of trust, and it affects the integrity of the systems on which you depend. This problem is amplified by the sheer size and scope of data being shared and collected, and the complexity of the data flow between consumers and businesses.
We are essentially in frontier times in regard to data collection, use, protection, and privacy. Though big data collection has been with us for decades, the connectivity between devices and humans has resulted in exponential growth. However the development of laws and etiquette has been slow, and left the community exposed to data abuse.
As we connect ourselves to more devices, and become more digitally watched, we all experience a rampaging digital footprint via our personal actions and transactions. We are becoming, in a sense, data beings.
While our data profiles grow daily, we’re constantly reminded of the dangers of data abuse. Whether it’s hacking, data breaches, or misuse, as in the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, seemingly not a week goes by without stories of data transgressions and errors.
A new start
Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s Information Commissioner, nicely stated what should be a starting point for a new direction toward the freedom of data, and privacy rights:
It is not a case of big data ‘or’ data protection, or big data ‘versus’ data protection. That would be the wrong conversation. Privacy is not an end in itself, it is an enabling right. Embedding privacy and data protection into big data analytics enables not only societal benefits such as dignity, personality and community, but also organisational benefits like creativity, innovation and trust. In short, it enables big data to do all the good things it can do. Yet that’s not to say someone shouldn’t be there to hold big data to account.
Trust is a huge issue here. It always will be. But bad behaviour, data breaches, and abuses by individuals and companies has without doubt compromised the community’s trust. In order to rebuild trust, we need to increase transparency, raise integrity, and above all encourage good behaviour.
In this respect we believe the establishment of ethical guidelines is even more important than a prescriptive legal framework. We need this to enable a balance to be achieved between a necessary level of privacy and protection, while maintaining an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Ownership and anonymity … now and always
To stay safe as individuals, and to allow business and government to ethically and profitably use our data, it’s essential that data is anonymised, and for common sense to be applied to ownership.
As an example, if a public transport operator records passenger patronage, it doesn’t make sense for either the operator or the passenger to claim exclusive ownership of the data. The data created by these two parties is of use to both, and of harm to neither, provided that the data remains appropriately anonymised.
We look to a combination of legality and ethics to govern this. The rules need to be clear, and ideally we will have an open and transparent body where people can go to air grievances, or have investigations conducted. As US Justice Louis D. Brandeis once famously said, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.’
The new, and fair frontier
Data privacy and protection is important, but increasing connectivity makes achieving it more difficult.
As Bill Gates said:
Historically, privacy was almost implicit, because it was hard to find and gather information. But in the digital world, whether it’s digital cameras or satellites or just what you click on, we need to have more explicit rules – not just for governments but for private companies.
The game has changed. And we need to be better players as soon as humanly, legally, and ethically possible.