Data Privacy and Security

Rant: A Virtual Bill of Rights is Needed to Guard Our Data

While the origins of the Magna Carta are subject to some dispute (the original agreement was between the monarch and only two dozen barons, for example) few would doubt the influence the document, or its offspring, has had on the histories of the English-speaking nations. Whatever the scope of the original, the joint principles — that all people are ultimately accountable and that nobody should hold a position of absolute power — form the basis of UK, US and many other democracies.

We are generally comfortable with the idea that society before the Industrial Revolution was more primitive than today, at least in our wonderfully advanced Western economies, so the historical existence of despotic ruling classes that needed to have their wings clipped comes as no surprise. How content we all are to know that modern society is so much more developed, so much less like a fairy story than in days of yore.

Things were simpler then, or at least appear to have been from our technologically advanced, increasingly globalised vantage point. King John was clearly a bad ‘un, ruling in his brother's absence like the entire country was his plaything. And so, as we combine history and myth, throwing in a Robin Hood here and a Friar Tuck there, we simplify and construct a reality to give ourselves the impression that we are better off.

History tends to repeat itself, however. Containing the First Amendment stating, "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech", the US Constitution and Bill of Rights were formulated in response to the perceived threat of tyranny coming from both outside and within the still-fledgling country. And in living memory (1950), the Council of Europe created the European Convention on Human Rights in response to both the horrors of the Second World War and the looming spectre of the Eastern Bloc.

We shouldn’t be perturbed that more recent events are harder to decipher than those of a thousand years ago. Information may be power but it also creates complexity, nuance, uncertainty… particularly when it keeps on changing. More challenging is that much of the problem is of our own making. Over the past five years, we have seen computer systems become powerful enough to enable more than a billion people to communicate 'in real time', to support an array of breakthroughs from identifying new particles to discovering cures to diseases.

Simple extrapolation suggests we haven't yet even scratched the surface of what we are only beginning to make possible. We really are living in highly interesting, nay fascinating, times, as we swim amid oceans of information, the likes of which has never before been seen. As we splash and dive, however, we remain decidedly, even determinedly ignorant of the dangers that lurk beneath, particularly if information is left in the hands of people who are able to act above, or beyond existing law.

The fact that our governments have been collecting data on just about everything they can is, in hindsight, as inevitable as Facebook or Google's trawling of our messages for details of personal interests they could sell to advertisers. As, indeed, is the fact that the authorities have proved themselves completely incapable of stemming the outflow of information as to what they have been gathering. Some commentators have been shaking their virtual heads in disbelief at the lack of public response — testament to the pervading sense of passivity.

And what of the whistle-blowers? Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are not mega-minds holding the world's data mountains hostage, but ordinary folks who, for whatever reason, decided to flick the software equivalent of a switch and who have gained notoriety as a result. They are not alone: a broad range of people, from Mark Zuckerberg to the NSA analysts who have spied on ex-partners, have been pushing at the boundaries of both equality and common decency as they discover what they can do with such a wealth of information.

The fact we need new frameworks for governance is so obvious that it hardly needs saying, and indeed, efforts are underway. However, ongoing initiatives are fragmented and dispersed across sectors, geographies and types of institution. For example the UN's resolution on “The right to privacy in the digital age” overlaps with proposed amendments to the US 'Do Not Track’ laws, as well as Europe's proposed 'right to be forgotten' (which has already evolved into a 'right to erasure’) rules.

Chances are that all such attempts to legislate will be superseded as new forms of information gathering and analysis develop. One only has to look at the number of cameras being installed on next-generation cars, or the fears around utilities using smart grids to switch off energy without the home-owner's consent, to appreciate some of the difficulties which lie ahead. The debate becomes even more complex when metadata (data about data, such as phone call records), data aggregation and anonymising are taken into consideration.

Wherever the answer lies, it is unlikely to be found by trying to solve each problem individually. Instead it requires a profound rethink as to how we consider our new abilities to quantify, monitor and capture everything we say, do and touch. The information age has brought an additional dimension to our existence which we would not want to be without. We have moved, over the past 200 years, since the discovery of electricity and the capabilities of semiconductors, from seeing in black-and-white to colour. However, to continue the analogy, current legislative approaches are trying to apply three-dimensional thinking to a four-dimensional space. The UK’s Data Protection Act, laws around cybercrime, even areas such as intellectual property and 'digital rights’ all consider digital information as something separate, adding to, as opposed to augmenting, what has gone before.

Information is indifferent, even oblivious to our attempts to control it as an entity, a fact that the darker elements of our governments and corporations are exploiting, even as they profess the opposite. As are we all, potentially, as we watch Blackberry Messenger become the anti-establishment rioter's preferred mode of communication, or participate en masse in click-rallies aimed at influencing corporations and governments, or benefit from Freedom of Information requests. As many have said, information wants to be free.

The information revolution has already changed the world, but in many ways we are still acting as though it hasn’t. This disconnect creates an opportunity for all, but more so for the powerful than the average citizen — it was ever thus. Stripping away the silicon-and-polymer trappings of our technologically advanced culture reveals an issue as old as the Magna Carta: that inadequate governance allows for a minority to act with impunity, even as the rights of the masses are abused.

Is there an answer? Yes there is, by no longer thinking about information as a separate element of our existence, but as an immutable part of us. Some technological circles, including gaming, social networks and the Internet of Things, already accept the notion of a virtual representation of something physical — an avatar, for example. Today, our virtual representations are fragmented and of poor quality, but already corporations such as Axciom are looking to change that. Hackneyed phrases like "if the service is free, you are the product”, bandied around as if saying them often enough makes them acceptable, reflect how corporations already ‘get’ the notion of the virtual, exploitable self.

We all know that our very real lives are being intruded upon — we can feel it in our bones. Just as we would find it unacceptable to be body-searched for no reason, or for a telephone engineer to walk into our front rooms and start flicking through our address books, so are we experiencing the discomfort of having our online lives mined for information, or being ‘followed’ by over-zealous and poorly targeted banner advertising. To dislike feelings of intrusion is the most natural thing in the physical world, and so it should be in the virtual world.

The information revolution is far from over. New opportunities to breach privacy continue to emerge, with ethical consequences that go far beyond the questions of legality - such as the case of direct mail targeting the recently bereaved, or the now-banned ’smart’ bins which track people using their Bluetooth identifiers. We have not yet fully grasped that information about ourselves doesn't just belong to us - it is us, and as such needs to be considered within the rights that we already hold as fundamental. 

Our virtual, digital, quantified selves should be afforded the same rights as our physical selves. Until we get this, and national and international legislation reflects the principle across the board, we shall continue to be beaten down by the feeling that, in information terms, we are giving away more than we are getting. As we add layer upon layer of detail to everything we see and do, the level of discomfort will only increase until such time as we, as a race, reclaim our information-augmented humanity.


UK-based Jon Collins is principal advisor at Inter Orbis, the company he started to watch technological developments. With over 20 years’ background in the technology industry, Jon has a deep understanding and practical experience of the applications of ICT.


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Jon Collins

Jon Collins is an analyst and principal advisor at Inter Orbis. He has over 25 years in experience of the tech sector, having worked as an IT manager, software consultant, project manager and training manager among other roles. Jon’s published work covers security, governance, project management but also includes books on music, including works on Rush, Mike Oldfield and Marillion. See More

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