Claiming back our privacy: an interview with Emily Taylor
At our Business Network event last month, our expert panel delved into privacy in the digital age, and what the future of the internet age might look like. One of these experts was Emily Taylor, an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and Editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy. We sat down with her after the event to look in more detail at the nuances of privacy online, and what we can do to claim ours back.
Hi Emily. Ignoring Brexit, will the new EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) do anything for consumers? Is Europe a pioneer for data privacy (and if so, is it at the cost of being competitive?)
The EU GDPRs are the most heavily lobbied legislation in the history of the EU. Of course, we can’t really ignore the impact of Brexit on the whole scenario as it will affect the United Kingdom and there’s an awful lot we don’t yet know. But for the question, we can put Brexit to one side because it adds a whole layer of complexity.
Generally speaking, when you look at the detail of the GDPR compared to what we have now, it is longer and more complex, but it’s still based on the same fundamental mechanism of the concept of user consent. I can understand why legislators have continued with concept of user consent, because it’s convenient. But it’s a convenient fiction, and the inconvenient truth is that most consumers don’t know and don’t really have any choice about what happens to their data, particularly when using free online services. That may change a little under the new regulations – consumers will supposedly be offered a real meaningful opt out, which will make a huge difference. At the moment if you don’t like the deal with online services, your only option is to not use them, but for many of us it’s an embedded part of life now, so that’s not a viable option.
I think other issues that might have an impact is the concept of data portability, so you could potentially take all of your data from one platform to another, and platforms are encouraged to think of automatic ways of that happening rather than leaving the burden to the consumer.
Europe has been a pioneer for data privacy. It’s been the strongest voice in the wake of the Snowden revelations, by really asserting privacy as a fundamental right and the European courts have been very strong on that. But we live in global markets and one of the worries is how to avoid making an island of Europe where rights are protected but it’s less attractive to trade.
Data collected surreptitiously helps advertisers and marketers with targeted advertising – isn’t that better than blanket advertising?
Definitely – for advertisers and marketers. If you were an advertiser in the 80s and 90s, you’d be spending millions of pounds on broadcast advertising but you’d really never know what impact it had. Now there is incredible transparency about who’s viewed a campaign and how they’ve responded. A lot of consumers don’t mind, and appreciate targeted advertising, and that’s fine.
But there needs to be an alternative for all the people who don’t want to be tracked or profiled because they think it is a bit creepy. People want to be able to control how they are advertised at, and I don’t think the onus should be on the consumer to download an ad blocker – the relationship between consumer and advertiser should be more understanding. I think traders will begin to realise the creepy effect and will play it down.
What societal changes do you predict now we can’t switch off from our various communities and our history of exchanges isn’t readily forgotten? Will there be long lasting consequences of every Facebook conversation we’ve ever had existing forever?
This is a great question and I think the honest answer is we don’t know. The author John Norton has described our relationship with the online world as a giant experiment, and that the only societal experiment of this scale and ambition that’s ever been embarked upon before was the Stasi in East Germany. I think that highlights the risks to society and democracy of what Al Gore calls a stalker economy.
As a society, it’s very rare for us to have embraced so whole heartedly a technology that we don’t really understand. We have switched the default from forgetting to remembering, and as today’s teenagers start to become tomorrow’s public figures, all of their folly will still be online. We need to find ways of coping with that legacy, which is going to be growing all the time, in order to enable people to still function as the person they’ve become rather than who they used to be.
It is likely that the chilling effect will become the norm, where we think we might be watched, or our actions might come back to haunt us, so we behave differently. That’s a loss in a way, as although we want people to be measured in public life, and we want them to conduct themselves thoughtfully, it’s an important aspect of humanity that we must be able to still reclaim private spaces. Eventually we will find technologies that get around this but it might be a long process.
Is there any point in taking action to protect our privacy online? Or are developments for invaders of our privacy too fast or too smart to give us any point to trying in the first place?
I do think we should try. We as consumers have very little idea of how much our data reveals about us. For example, just from our likes on Facebook alone researchers have identified accurately people’s gender, age, ethnicity, religious beliefs, political beliefs, and their use of addictive substances. We don’t even think we’re giving away revealing information but the technology continues to get cleverer, knowing more than we thought we knew ourselves.
I think there’s always a point in taking action however futile it feels because numbers of people either with actions or words can build up a pressure. There’s definitely a sense of since say the Snowden revelations a lot of the technical platforms have made changes in order to allay public concerns and recapture trust. It’s a very important aspect of democracy that we do continue to complain.
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