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Privacy in the digital age

Graham Titterington | March 29, 2010
People whose privacy is violated lose trust in systems, further degrading the systems performance.

The Web Science Trust organized a discussion on privacy and identity in a digital age at the Royal Society in London last week. The fundamental questions were identified, along with the inherent contradictions they raise. They impact the delivery of public services, the business model of commercial services (particularly online services), the development of social networks, and individual rights.

Data improves public service delivery

Ovum logoData is essential for good government. It allows service levels to be monitored and poor performance to be identified. This data often relates to individuals, but removing personal identifiers from it can minimize the resulting privacy impairment. In many cases, using aggregated personal data has led to undisputable benefits such as identifying hospitals with excessive death rates, but in other areas where socio-economic data is involved, the final judgment is more open to debate.

Open government depends on the disclosure of government data, including data derived from personal information. Observers have noted benefits from moving towards open government. For example, local governments have won more trust from their citizens and, because of the publication of crime maps, UK police forces have come to view citizens as their customers, rather than believing their only customer is the government.

Whose data is it, anyway?

Most of the panel at the event believed that personal data belonged to the data subject, although there were dissenting opinions that it belonged to the organizations that had collected it. Information differs from most property in that it is copied when it is acquired. Ownership has two facets: who controls how it is used, and whether the owner should be paid for any use of the information. The latter option would incur disproportionate administrative costs and is not a realistic prospect. But the question of control cannot be addressed until the question of ownership is resolved, and the ensuing discussion showed how little progress we have made with this fundamental question. European data protection laws try to limit how information can be used by the recipient, but this only partially answers the question of control. Giving the individual more control over their information could improve its accuracy and currency.

Ultimately, we believe the ownership issue will be resolved by the practical limitations of discovering, reviewing, and updating information. Practical ownership is likely to be limited to data held by public services.

Social networks should be more user friendly

Social networks accumulate vast quantities of personal data from users who do not appreciate how this can come back to haunt them. Digital information persists for many years. Personal information on the Internet can both help and hinder people when they try to establish a reputation in new situations. But social networking sites fail to take account of the fact that people participate in different kinds of friendships and expose different aspects of their lives in each one the websites impose a single level of relationship. Although they often provide privacy protection functionality, this is often difficult to use. They should provide users with easier ways to delete content.


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