Data Privacy Needs You

You want my metadata 608The United Nations just adopted a new resolution “urging all countries to protect the right to privacy in digital communications and to offer their citizens a way to seek remedy if their privacy is violated.”

Sadly, the resolution was not backed by the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada or New Zealand — indeed, they are rumored to have lobbied hard to dilute the resolution’s content.

Big data is an incredibly powerful weapon, and while it is an incredible force for good, all of recorded history clearly shows that such data-gathering technology WILL be abused. And the notion that privacy is protected as long as “it’s only metadata” that is being analyzed is completely ridiculous.

The private sector is clearly not the right place to make the required ethical tradeoffs — especially given the incredibly casual way we give away our most intimate information in return for “free” services.

We have to rely on our elected, accountable officials to make the right difficult choices — and protect us from ourselves. But for officials to be held accountable, there has to be enough transparency to know what is being done in our name.

After the Snowdon revelations, there continues to be a steady stream of stories that seem to confirm that much more data is being gathered than anybody has ever admitted to in public. For example a report this week appears to confirm that the UK GCHQ installed malware in European telcos, and the US federal government and local police forces have been using “Stingray” devices to gather up mobile phone data, apparently with little oversight.

The possible abuses of this data on any “enemy of the government” are chilling, as shown by the recent publishing of the fake letter the FBI sent Martin Luther King in an apparent attempt to get him to commit suicide.

Wholesale gathering of information is not incompatible with democracy, if that’s what people vote for. But lying to elected representatives about what you are doing certainly is.

If you are in any way working with big data and analytics, this is not just an academic discussion. We are all relying on you to make sure that our information is safe and that your organization is using it transparently and ethically. A rule of thumb: if you’re not revealing something to your customers because you know they would find it “too creepy,” you should take a long, hard look at what you’re doing…