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The politics of data ownership

 Our physical journey through the world is increasingly mapped by our activity on digital applications – from store cards and CCTV to Smartphones and data tracking. Our feelings of living in a panoptical society have evolved from those of dystopian Big Brother-ness to a fairly benign acceptance that personal data and its exploitation is a necessary component in the fabric of modern society, destined to endure until we drop off this mortal coil. But as digital communications evolve and data becomes an ever more valuable commodity, what are the implications for our right to privacy?

Services such as Facebook and Google offer their services for free – but the costs of their resources and expertise are immense. They make their money by aligning advertising with your recent searches and personal information; which depending on your inclination can be ignored or otherwise. We are increasingly unused to paying for online services – after being enthusiastically encouraged to sign up for free when the whole social media boom took off – the question is would we rather pay for these services or received targeted advertising? Facebook admits to mapping its 800m users’ website activity for the previous 90 days before a visit; a practice that advertising agencies and online businesses defend, saying it affords them invaluable information about users’ interests and behaviours – which of course it does. But who decides what information is fair game? And if the goal posts move at any stage, will we be consulted? CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists the data is used solely to enhance the users’ experience of Facebook functionalities – but, tellingly, is yet to respond to recent claims that he applied for a patent for technology that correlates tracking data with advertisements.

We know that insurance and recruitment companies refer to online profiles to support or dismiss applications; Add to that personal information gleaned from Smartphones, apps, e-commerce and search activity, and you are looking at a pretty comprehensive portrait of a citizen. Though it is not yet believed to be the case, at least not on a significant level, privacy advocates worry that corporations, government agencies and political parties could routinely purchase tracking data from data aggregators. Certainly, it would do no harm for there to be ground rules in place if or rather when this does happen.

The UK Government is thought to be the largest data publisher in the world, with data.gov.uk several times greater than the US equivalent. They are currently at loggerheads over usage of data collated for the necessary running of the country. On one side there are the altruists who would like to see the data shared freely, on the other those who would like to profit. The data, comprised of post codes, procurement, land ownership information and much more, is derived from the Electoral Register. Access to the Electoral Register is free at local council offices and libraries but, due to its sheer volume and format, only really useful for simple reference. While the Full Electoral Register is subject to strict usage permissions, the Edited Register (which we can opt out of) can be bought for considerable cost and utilised for any purpose by any agency.

But public data, captured at source, at its most granular level and made freely available could benefit all businesses not just those with the reddies. Imagine the value of having access to Ordnance Survey mapping data if you were a fledgling business or service provider in the UK? Without considerable funds to invest, this precious data is out of reach. And it’s not just private companies that are losing out through this debilitating system. Trading Funds, introduced by the Conservative Government, force organisations such as the Post Office, OS, HM Land Registry and the Patent Office to sell data to other public and private agencies in order to meet Treasury targets. For example, in 2008 Swindon had to pay OS £38,000 to use its addresses and geographical data.

As a notoriously private nation what do we think of such proliferation of our personal details? In 2009, a Politics Home survey found that 63% of Britons feel the government already collects too much information about them, and only one in four favours data collection and retention by the authorities. Considering the loss of 25m personal records by HM Revenue and Customs in 2007 it is hardly surprising!

In 2010 Google was accused of illegally harvesting data including millions of emails, passwords, website addresses and even some health records for creation of its UK Street View maps from encrypted wireless networks. Only an individual with a black belt in naivety would claim that Google’s relentless quest for data was anything less than share-focussed megalomania but never-the-less, if such activities go unchallenged and unregulated, how are we ever to know such data harvests even take place? Google claimed the collection was made in error and that they had not used the information to benefit any of its products and services. Deletion of the data was subsequently ordered and Google’s staff re-educated on data protection standards. The lack of action taken by the Information Commissioner’s Office was a source of great bewilderment and outrage from civil liberties groups who expressed doubts about the ability of the Office to successfully audit such activity.

The popularity of social media has spawned its own raft of debates on data ownership and harvest. In November 2011, researchers at the University of British Columbia revealed that their team of 120 ‘Socialbots’ had infiltrated the Facebook network and mined 250GB of personal information in just eight weeks. The Socialbots (specially developed software that mimics human behaviour) had their own full profile including the ability to make friends and update those friends on their activities. Ensuring they remained within Facebook’s limit of 25 friend requests a day the ‘bots sent out 5053 requests to random users eliciting a 19% positive response rate. A further 3,517 requests were then sent to the friends of people who had accepted first time ‘round. As these were more trusted recommendations this garnered an impressive 59% acceptance rate. Only 20% of these were blocked by Facebook’s ‘Immune System’ which is used to identify and remove fake profiles – most of those were a result of spam alerts from users. So far so anodyne – but consider the treasure trove of information contained within a targeted social network and the malevolent way this could be used for on-line profiling and phishing activities. Facebook’s advice for users to only accept requests from known parties is unrealistic – it is the issue of user data security at source which must be addressed.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main standards setting body for web technologies, is currently creating guidelines for software called “Do Not Track” (DNT), a browser-based mechanism that allows users to communicate data preferences to their chosen browser. This affords users protection from tracking by advertising networks across their digital journey. Unsurprisingly there are myriad considerations the W3C must make before its guidance is complete; significantly the way that browsers will communicate the opt-in functionality and demonstrate that the request is being honoured. While this is not a panacea to contentions of data ownership and distribution, it is certainly a step in the right direction and will help webmasters ensure they remain compliant with the new cookie laws that come into play in May 2012.

Governmental and other data will continue to be collated regardless of where it ends up. Providing we exercise control over our preferences and make it accessible in a coherent and intuitive manner this has the potential to open doors to the society that it is composed from in the first place. Sharing and combining large databases can provide hitherto unimaginable resources – facts are born of figures, innovation comes to the fore. If we can find a way to map and coordinate information in a meaningful and progressive way, while maintaining strict security controls to protect personal privacy, we could help develop more efficient use of services, foster sharing of knowledge and increase transparency and trust in Government. But who should be responsible for this daunting task? Is the civil service, with its somewhat inflexible attitudes to change, really the best agency to be in control of such large databases? Wouldn’t those with an aptitude for progression and more commercial nous be preferable? And can they be trusted?

Our lives are increasingly spent online, creating discrepancies about the nature of ownership. Digital commodities can be owned by multiple agencies as we exchange and share assets daily without concern. With so many ‘masters’ involved, the psychological value of these assets is diminished. Yet we cannot put boundaries on the transactional space the web offers us, it’s our regressive attitudes and lack of ability to systemise governance that is causing the problems and consequently stifling the possibilities for innovation and progression.