Comment: Protect our data – set it free

Free the data: Raper says the UK government needs to establish a two-way street for data traffic between the citizen and the state
Free the data: Raper says the UK government needs to establish a two-way street for data traffic between the citizen and the state
Prof. Jonathan Raper, City University London
Prof. Jonathan Raper, City University London

The privacy landscape is changing rapidly. The implementation of the Digital Economy Act, changes to the Data Protection Act, and the game-changing explosion of social media all continue to make a big impact.

This month Apple has seen its billionth application downloaded through the App Store. It wasn’t an enterprise application downloaded by a business professional. It was a piece of software downloaded by a 13-year-old boy who wanted an easy way to share information with his friends. It’s an indication that we are quickly moving towards a truly digital society – an environment in which consumers, businesses and government have increasing confidence in digital technologies to provide, obtain and share information that can support their daily processes. This, of course, raises privacy concerns for both individuals and society as a whole.

It’s no surprise that a lot of the current privacy debate centres on cybersecurity, protecting data and finding new technologies to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. These issues are extremely important, but they can overshadow the equally important imperative to free some of the useful data that is currently held by publicly funded bodies. This means establishing a two-way street for data traffic between the citizen and the state.

This is particularly the case with geo data. Maps and spatial information are used in a host of civic and political applications. A small revolution in mapping tools and standards is enabling business innovation and future location-based mobile services – yet bodies like Royal Mail are still charging for data that could be used in numerous innovative applications that would earn new taxes for the exchequer.

The imminent arrival of the European Galileo satellite service will further improve positioning, unlocking new potential services. The UK section of this year’s European Satellite Navigation Competition is now open and is set to offer a brand new raft of potential applications for geo data. Some of this data needs to be safeguarded to protect people and their possessions – some of it needs to be opened up to create new products and services for citizens.

Both sides of the privacy coin create challenges for the new government. It’s down to the new administration to create the appropriate legal, regulatory and technical environment in which people and business can benefit from the advantages of new technology whilst feeling protected from the threat of privacy attacks.

Data controllers now have to secure increasingly vast amounts of information. According to research firm IDC, 1200 exabytes of digital data will be generated this year. That is the equivalent of ten billion copies of Infosecurity. Storing that amount of data securely requires the rapid development of new technology that goes way beyond current storage solutions. New hybrid solutions will have to marry technology and behaviour changes to address the next generation of security challenges.

I would welcome the government's decision to increase the fines that can be levied by the Information Commissioner's Office for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act. We must stop organizations from playing fast and loose with our data, and maximum fines of £500 000 will be an important new deterrent. But in recent times the government itself has been the biggest offender, and if we are to build confidence in the digital society, the government must put its own house in order.

The new coalition government must also ensure that it bases legislation on a sound understanding of technology – particularly how users engage with it today, and how this is expected to change in the future. Too many recent laws, such as the Digital Economy Act, have been pushed through Parliament even though high-tech criminals can easily circumvent them.

If technology laws infringe on liberties but do not stop crime, then they will not command public respect. Persuading the public to engage in the digital society means both effective regulation of privacy and intellectual property, but also showing the benefits of public information release in transport, planning and crime, amongst others. This is the kind of 'digital social contract' that will help build the digital society we all want to see.

I’m hoping that the report coming out of the Fine Balance privacy conference on June 8 will begin to answer some of these questions.

Jonathan Raper is a professor of geographic information science at City University London, and founder of the technology startup Placr, which develops geospatial mobile solutions. He is known internationally for his work on GIS, spatial data and location-based services, having published around 150 research articles and seven books in these fields. He is speaking at A Fine Balance 2010, a European conference on data privacy in the digital age held in Westminster next month.

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