Privacy, Open Data and Imposters


L-R: Michael Jackson, Stephen King, Sam Smith and James Graham

You could be forgiven for wondering what on earth a (deceased) popstar, a horror writer, a (living) popstar and a rugby league player could possibly have to do with a conference on transparency, privacy and open data. Well, the short answer is that there’s little connection, other than that their namesakes all made appearances at this week’s Omidyar Network conference, Open Up? 2014. Still, it makes for an attention-grabbing way of starting a blog post and attention, as we shall see later, can be a very lucrative commodity.

The conference sought to debate and make sense of the huge changes that digital tech has brought about in our notions and understanding of surveillance, transparency and privacy. These are, of course, gargantuan issues that have huge ramifications on the ways in which people live their lives and it would be impossible to do justice to it all here, so all I can do is point to a few highlights from the day. For those looking for more information or wanting to see videos from the day, take a look at Omidyar’s YouTube page. But for what it’s worth, here are a few of my highlights:

  • The test generation: The digital age is in its infancy and many of the technologies and platforms discussed at Open Up? either did not exist and/or where technically unfeasible at the start of this century. As such, it’s hardly surprising that we are still trying to figure out the acceptable limits and guidelines within which our digital society should or can function. We have the ability to collect more data than ever before through our mobile phones, PCs, tablets, wearable tech, smart devices and sensors. But just because we have the ability and the data may prove to be useful, doesn’t mean we should collect it or consent to its collection. With time, we will (hopefully) learn to adjust and adapt and come to some sort of consensus around what’s valuable, useful and right when it comes to digital data collection. But that takes time and it will only be achieved through a process of trial and error. And it’s our generation that are the digital guinea pigs. This ‘test generation’, as Liberty’s Chami Chakrabarti dubbed us, may well have a bumpy ride as we figure it out. And being clued up about what data we own, what’s collected and who has access to it are important first steps. Something to add to the curriculum?
  • Definitions: Unless you’re Samuel Johnson, you’re probably not that interested in definitions. For the open data community, however, definitions matter. This is partly because of the confusion in the press and general public about what is and isn’t ‘open’ data. So when people criticised the National Health Service in the UK for its plans to enable easier sharing of medical records, some criticised the open data movement for moving too fast and endangering our right to privacy. But the medical records debacle was never about open data, it was about data. Still, if the popular imagination associates open data with this sort of thing, then the concept could be in trouble. Unfortunately, the utility of open transport data or the research value of the British Library’s open metadata don’t make for good headlines. And until we can make open data simpler, more useful and more interesting, it’s not likely to hit the headlines.
  • Commodity vs Identity: Our personal data has clear value for governments, companies, charities and others. It can provide important indicators on the state of our health, our habits, our work patterns and knows things about us that we may not know ourselves. If you’re a woman and you switch from scented to unscented lotion, you may well be pregnant. Depending on what you like or share on Facebook, there’s an algorithm that can determine your religion, gender, sexuality and a whole other series of traits pretty accurately. What’s worrying about this is that users need not access or like specific pieces of content, but analysis of our digital activity over time can build a very significant image of who we are. And that information is gold for advertisers who may wish to sell us a particular service or encourage us to vote one way or the other. The idea of personal data as a commodity, therefore, is very attractive to some. But should we accept the commodification of our personal data? Is it more productive to view our personal data as an inalienable part of ourselves? While the Snowden revelations have prompted some of us to consider these questions and to revisit our relationship with our personal data, there is a doubt that the conversation will be taken up more broadly. And even if it is, how many of us really have the skills and knowledge to be able to take full control and ownership of our data?
  • Attention is king: For websites to function and make money, they need you to stick around. But for that to happen, they need users to trust them. So selling your data to a dodgy third party probably isn’t the best option for many sites and it’s an extremely short-term approach to making money. Like a Ponzi scheme, there’s only so many times they could do it before the whole edifice came crumbling down. It’s much more lucrative for sites to encourage you to stay and use them. The more time we spend on Facebook, for example, and the more things we click or like the more money Facebook can make from advertising. This is why Facebook privacy settings are big news and it’s why the company has invested in making its settings easier to understand and change. Yes, it’s a self-interested move and almost certainly makes economic sense. But if users better understand how their data is being used and by whom, they’re more likely to stick around.

While much of the discussion at Open Up? focused on issues and examples relevant mainly to a UK/European/US audience, there is an increasing awareness of the importance of both privacy and transparency in the international development community. Digital technology has huge potential to improve health outcomes, raise agricultural yields and shed light on the activities of government and service providers, but doing so safely and securely must be the top priority. Ensuring the protection of personal data and the security of digital communications is a key part of that – whether for users in the UK or Uganda, Germany or Ghana.