Data and Privacy: as Discussed in the Internet Monitor 2014 Report

January 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

During the latter part of last year, I started collating all the relevant literature available on issues pertaining to personal data and privacy. This isBlog_Jan15 contained in a catalogue of resources maintained on the Personal Data & Privacy Working Group wiki. The intention behind this exercise is to facilitate easy access to materials that are essential to fully understanding and working around this complex and evolving area.  In this post, I would like to highlight one recent publication in particular, i.e. the data and privacy chapter which is included in the very enlightening Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World report. This comprehensive publication (by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University) examined the digital trends of the year. However a very useful and relevant chapter was dedicated to exploring data and privacy issues. I feel this chapter nicely summarises some of the discussions we have attempted to have over the last year within the WG.

Overall, it highlights how difficult it is to ensure privacy on the web, especially since operationalising standards such as informed consent often get quite murky. Internet security is closely linked to this, where the powers that be (in the form of governments, superpower tech companies) can and do limit the ability of individuals to safeguard their own data protection interests. Many legal and technological solutions are proposed but most are not so easy implemented. Articles by noted open data and privacy experts Tim Davies and Malavika Jayaram offer some insightful discussions. The former discusses the subtle and not-so-subtle tensions between accountability and privacy protection in open government initiatives, especially when issues about what can in fact be considered as effective anonymisation come to the fore (as the hot debates on most platforms in the previous year show).  Sharing insights along similar lines, Jayaram argues for the development sector specifically, noting that advances in the use of technology for data collection and management (for everything, from elections to healthcare) present significant opportunities for privacy violations due to the vast amounts of personal (and often sensitive) data involved. Put into this mix the varied (and often inadequate) capacities of the actors from the different (developing) contexts and this is exacerbated even further.

However, mirroring the tone of Davies’ closing lines, Jayaram calls out on a more positive note,  the increasing interaction of the ‘privacy’ and ‘open’ camps (and the Personal Data & Privacy WG is a typical example of such a platform),  which is currently touted as the way to go to ensure that more nuanced and necessary conversations are taking place to stem this negative tide of personal data abuse.

Outside of these two articles, Neal Cohen’s piece also touches on a particular important set of actors, that is (data) regulators, and the role that privacy laws play in general. He notes that companies need to know unequivocally what exactly they are permitted to do with the data (they collect and manage). But with non-clear data protection laws in place coupled with cross-jurisdictional data flows increasingly becoming a significant problem, we may however not be any nearer to having this standard in place.

The full report can be accessed here.

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