Data: the privacy debate

Data and privacy are the issues of our time. The investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalladr and her team, which took over a year to fully expose Cambridge Analytica, marks a watershed: never again can we allow our personal data to be used and manipulated in this way. The complicity of Facebook in this unfolding story means that I for one will think twice about what personal information I share, which seemingly harmless online quizzes I might take, or even whether to post a photo of my son’s Oreo birthday cake, lest this information be used for hidden political or financial purposes.

A few months ago a pro-BREXIT advert featuring James Dyson (of vacuum cleaner fame) appeared on my feed. I removed it, as it was not relevant to me. I like using social media, and as a public figure it is essential for modern day-to-day communication. However, using social media is a learning process and our ignorance of how our personal data is used and, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, abused, cannot continue.

Our democracy, and the democracies of our partners in Europe and the US, are being put at risk by people who know exactly what they are doing: manipulating our personal data behind the scenes for private profit and for political gain by forces which seek to undermine or exploit democracy. The UK Information Commission, who investigate the company, look like knights in shining armour, riding into the company servers to be able to look at how data analytics are used for political purposes. Their action in this field is a positive step. But what next?

Data is the new oil driving our modern economy - privacy by design, therefore, must be at the heart of this new world.  Our personal data is now a currency with untold value which many of us sign away for free to access services. We need to better understand whether the trade-off of ‘free’ services is worth the cost of our personal privacy. Education is key to ensuring widespread understanding of the choices we each face, in order that there can be informed decision-making in this new, data-driven, world. The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU forces organisations who hold personal data to take more seriously their responsibility to protect individual privacy. The work of the Carnegie Trust, looking at the ways in which libraries can play a role in promoting personal privacy and educating the public about the consequences of the choices they make, is also important. Librarians’ new role will be that of pivotal data educators.

If we are to ensure that data education and citizens’ privacy rights are as close to people as possible, then data powers need to be fully devolved to Scotland. Currently, Freedom of Information in Scotland is dealt with by the Scottish Information Commissioner, but data is dealt with by the UK Information Commissioner not in Scotland, but London. Data, the issue of our time, which can only grow in importance as our data economy grows, should be dealt with as close to people as possible. We must have transparency, education and a realisation that we all have a responsibility to protect our private information, the misuse of which can have, as has been made clear this week, tragic consequences.


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