Monday, May 09, 2011

Digital privacy gordian knot

Living in the catchment area of a teaching hospital I get letters on a semi regular basis asking me or members of my family to participate in some medical research survey/trial. I always refuse on privacy grounds but occasionally send the form back asking them to take our details off their mailing lists (with little expectation that this will be done).  All modern technological, social, economic and organisational systems that process and store sensitive personal data are leaky, in many cases seriously so. HMRC 25 million debacle of 2007 and the Sony Playstation mess of recent weeks and others repeatedly remind us of this yet we see little progress on the privacy front.

One of the issues with improving these systems is that independent researchers with the capacity to help public and private sector organisations improve them rarely have direct access to the systems to the extent that sufficient robust empirical evidence can be generated and analysed with a view to expediting such improvements. Yet the granting of such researcher access fundamentally breaches the privacy of the individuals whose personal data is already compromised by virtue of the fact that it is held and processed on these leaky systems by these leaky organisations.

We already know a lot about improving these systems in ways that would respect privacy but don't implement these principles in practice.  So I'm pessimistic that even if we could cut the gordian knot of facilitating empirical research of real world systems without compromising the privacy of the data subjects on those systems it would necessarily help our progress towards a privacy enhanced future.  Privacy is complex and difficult especially faced with the forces undermining it:
  • technology, 
  • economics, 
  • convenience and 
  • bureaucracy.

The first law of technology is that if it can be done it will be done - basically fatal for personal privacy

Commercial sector (not just Facebook's and Tesco's) profits depend on undermining personal privacy

Our own addiction to convenience beats everything, including personal privacy

And the obsessive digital Taylorism of the public (and private) sector bureaucrat - the mindset that there is value only in that which can be measured and controlled - is also fatal for personal privacy.

Actually, faced with such forces the mythical, ethical, superhero researcher with the absolutely secure empirical research system, which enables said researcher to know everything about the commercial/public sector system under examination without knowing anything about the data subjects in that system, is something of a minor problem. Cheery thoughts for a Monday morning.

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