Privacy as a Standard

The internet has advanced from simply being able to view webpages on a CRT monitor to the Internet of Things allowing for a healthier, safer and more fulfilling lifestyle. The internet has also changed how we perceive information and data, how we share it, how we control it (whether we control it), who we trust to know and have it. In many ways, the internet has made us more relaxed when sharing information about ourselves. Privacy today is considered a right at a very basic level but should we raise the bar for what we consider acceptable?

At a panel discussion at the Royal Society, the question Can Our Online Lives Be Private was presented. I came in with the rock solid mind-set of the answer being no, but came away instead with the answer “it would be very hard, but in the future it may change”. Many topics were presented and the video can still be watched on the Royal Society YouTube channel, but overall the viewpoint was against a private life online. Anyone following the progression of the internet would understand that, analysis and metrics have risen to become very important considerations in developing online services (which then require collection of data) and social media simply doesn’t work without handing information organisations with very little control (the greater the control, the more friction the services have which could deter their use). However, the law is yet to progress to regulate online activity to the level it would usually get to for a matured area of society and public perception can still be moulded while the internet is still in its early years and changing quickly.

Data collection today is widespread and near unavoidable. More devices have sensors, from our fridges to children’s teddy bears, and the number sensors in them are also increasing. To enable the greater understanding of our lives in and outside of our everyday work, these sensors must be connected to better understand trends and anomalies. The costs of these sensors is decreasing and the benefits of collecting the data and storing it for longer is growing, both in short and long term financial gain. Data collection is becoming less intrusive, but it is also becoming harder to notice and fully comprehend.

Data control is a wide area to consider once the data is collected. An initial question someone may think of is who owns the data once it has been collected. Although an important question, it ignores the trends that are occurring and therefore a better question would be who can access the data I have shared. The “I have shared” is important because you are effectively giving organisations a copy of some or all of the details and information you have and it is then their choice whether you should have no, some or (unlikely) complete control of the information. Keeping tabs on not only who has information about you but also what information is an incredibly complex task that most consumers would not wish to undertake.

With big data individuals and firms will have economic benefit from keeping and collecting as much data as possible to spot unlikely but real trends from unlikely sources. Big data is to many just another one of industry’s meaningless new buzzwords. To me and others, big data is a promise of a very different future. Big data doesn’t necessarily need to be about personal data, but it is looking at having vast quantities of data and using it for social and economic benefit (even if it is not to the benefit of those who form part of the data set). Big data should and does work well but carries significant risk, which is where privacy comes in.

Privacy as a standard is an interesting premise, as it can have great social impact. The first considerations would need to be the level of privacy required to meet the standard and the sacrifices to innovation that will occur at different levels. When I ponder the concept of privacy as a standard, I mean at minimum the control of who and how long someone can access data and how protected the data must be. As of now, the three have been considered features that some companies offer to appear more consumer friendly then their competitors. However, the latter is becoming increasingly important as high profile cases of hacking, from Ashley Madison to Sony, where the risk to consumers is significant. More control over the data could prevent hacking from becoming as serious of a problem, since some companies do not wipe data after deleting an account. It is easy to see that there should be a reduced burden on society, as they would be sure with all services who could access their data, whether their friends, family or the owners of the services they use.

There is a classical economic argument that this is best left to the market, and there is some justification for this. Creating a minimum level of privacy in law increases costs for firms and requires more labour and the costs are more questionable for firms targeting customers that are unlikely to utilise the additional benefit. Furthermore, going back to big data, holding data for longer could reap significant reward in the near or far future and if consumers can wipe certain information by law, this will reduce the data set and could hinder innovation and development within technology. It must also be taken into consideration that governments are seldom fast enough to make sure legislation reflects the needs of society at the present, leading to the likely event that if privacy as a standard were to occur, society may have concluded a different solution is required.

For those reasons, I find it unlikely that we will see something to the effect of privacy as a standard in the near future, but it is a discussion I hope will continue as events impact what we consider is the right practice when it comes to our data and information.

The Royal Society panel is available to watch online (via YouTube)

Contributed by Kojo Amoasi Science and Technology Editor

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