Friday 6 February 2015

What hope of a Magna Carta for big data?

The European privacy fraternity does think about issues other than the European General Data Regulation.

The latest idea, from the Insight Centre in Ireland, is a Magna Carta for big data. 

With over 350 researchers, Insight is Ireland’s largest ever research investment and one of the biggest data analytics institutes in the world. In their words: “There is growing public unease about the pace of growth in Big Data and lack of transparency about its use. Data use by public and private entities raises important questions about ownership, privacy, individual rights and societal progress. We cannot allow technology to outrun policy and legislation. We need to define the rights of all stakeholders and anticipate the issues that are likely to arise.”

Great idea. But can it be realised?

Given how the European institution’s concept of privacy has morphed from a qualified right to a fundamental right – by stealth – problems arise in appreciating that data controllers have rights, too. It is a poorly understood fact that, actually, human rights legislation also gives rights to bodies that are not human.

As Insight (more diplomatically) put it: “The almost exclusive focus on the privacy of the individual, while politically popular, is potentially damaging to progress.”

When asked recently to comment on the proposal for a Magna Carta for an article in Washington Internet Daily, I pointed out that the paper clearly sets out why something must be done to define the rights of all stakeholders and anticipate likely emerging issues. But that was the easy part. The Centre hasn’t really explained how the rights of all stakeholders should be defined, nor what those rights should be.

Another open question is whether there’s sufficient common ground among players to make any big data standards meaningful. The question of who should be permitted to own what information is so toxic.

The proposals have extremely worthwhile aims but I’m not convinced the developed world has sufficiently robust processes in place that are capable of achieving them, and in particular ensuring that all stakeholders respect them.
Let's face it. Our record on regulating climate change is poor. Nor do we appear to have had much success in ensuring that citizens, in significant parts of the world, can live in peace.

So why do we think its possible for stakeholders to reach a European-wide agreement on norms for processing Big Data?

Please, please, please – someone prove me wrong.