Data Protection for Personal Privacy

Data Regulation in Ireland

Jonny Darling Insight Leave a Comment

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner can anticipate increased funding to be announced in tomorrow’s budget, according to the Irish Times. This article, first published in May 2014 on Medium, explores the responsibility and opportunity granted Ireland. It’s imperative that the new Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, put pay to lip service and demonstrate strong data regulation governance.

An Irish passport opens doors abroad but what of our “open door” policy to personal data here at home?

Ireland enjoys some of the highest quality of life in Europe and we Irish think ourselves fairly well off, according to OECD Index. “Sense of community” stands out. We live up to our stereotype; happy-go-lucky, warm, welcoming, glass-half-full people in the round. We’ve enjoy a “special relationship” with the U.S and are Europe’s pet project. We embrace U.S capitalism but hedge ourselves under the safety blanket of E.U membership.

In this essay I explore our “diplomatic” socio-economic identity and challenge blind-eye neutrality, arguing for stronger alignment to European fundamentals. Capitalism unchecked, particularly now in the era of digital currency and data exchange, has a way of exploiting vulnerabilities, even those designed with the best intention, such as openness, trust and community!

Carte Blanche

Our faith in social structures is eroded by commercial interests. The system seems infected to cancerous net effect — banking malpractice, journalism scandals, charity misappropriation, criminal politicians, corporate antitrust, illegitimate wars — due, in no small part, to neo-classical economics and free market deregulation. In his essay ‘The Fate Of Empires’, Lieutenant-General Sir John Glubb analysed the life-cycle of empires. Empires last about 250 years, or ten generations, from the early pioneers to the final conspicuous consumers who become a burden on the state. Empires are about power, as chronicled in the award-winning socio-economic documentary Four Horsemen. We are seeing fractures in a decaying Western capitalist empire, from financial industry melt-down, anti-democratic government, social upheaval and warfare to resource inequality and environmental collapse. These are the exhaust fumes of the industrial revolution. As we transition to the technology revolution, or the knowledge era, the competition for power is fierce, the desire to rule, absolute. Knowledge is power.

The new documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply investigates the true extent to which the internet acts as a harvesting machine for information. We come to recognise the pervasiveness of surveillance in our lives, not only the digital sphere. We learn that we most certainly are not “Anonymous”. As the film-makers acknowledge, the wider public response is often indifference rather than ignorance. We generally tolerate and accept that the benefits of digital communication and utility services are offset by contextual, personalized advertising based on invasive tracking. We’re less comfortable with revelations from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden — that the NSA, three times the size of the CIA, seize huge swaths of personal information from technology companies such as Facebook and Google under the Patriots Act. Suddenly the landscape looks very different. We knew companies built up profile information about us for marketing purposes, which is scary enough in its’ own right (watch Consumed — Is Our Consumer Culture Leading to Disaster?). Now we discover that internet service providers — be they broadband companies, social networks, search engines, communication services — are bound to bundle everything they know about us and hand it over to the state, yet government and public agencies are absolved of responsibility for that information, under the 3rd party doctrine in American law.

Big Brother Data Surveillance

This underlying assertion is further articulated by Derek Scally in the Irish Times, Ireland; Prisoner of Big Tech?. He quotes Shoshana Zuboff [former professor at Harvard Business school] who argues that Google’s …

“penetrating curiosity about users’ habits, movements, thoughts and secrets have, via the Prism programme, made US tech companies Trojan horses for US intelligence services”

In her latest contribution to German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, Shoshana Zuboff is clear.

“The whole topography of cyberspace then began to morph as Google and Facebook developed a wholly new business logic that incorporated elements of the conventional logic of corporate capitalism — especially its adversarialism toward end consumers — along with elements from the new internet world — especially its intimacy. The outcome was a new dimension of cyberspace: the networked surveillance sphere.”

So we’re being watched, for commercial reason and on grounds of public interest. Do we have a choice in the matter? Zuboff states,

“the new concentration of privacy rights is institutionalised in the automatic, undetectable functions of a global infrastructure that most of the world’s people also happen to think is essential for basic social participation: the internet.”

The internet, like the monetary system of neo-classical economics, concentrates vast information, ergo power, in the hands of the elite few, the so-called tech giants. The monetary system leaves a world order indebted and beholden to the banks, who are too big to fail. It creates a minority of winners, a majority of “conspicuous consumers who become a burden on the state”. The digital system works the same way, absolving technology companies of their social responsibility, government protecting and profiting from corporates to the detriment of the people.

Map of Google, facebook, twitter, wikipedia

We in Ireland host a disproportionate concentration of the major technology companies in the World. Johannes Caspar, data protection regulator in Hamburg, voices;

“The problem we have with Facebook is that it appears to have chosen a location where not only the tax but also the data protection regime suits its business practices”

Scally concludes,

“The prime resource of this century is data; analysing that data to sell advertisements and influence human behaviour is the golden coin of the digital realm. By attracting Facebook and Google to its shores Ireland — its citizens, Government and Data Protection Commissioner — oversees the digital mining licences for Facebook and Google, deciding how deep they can drill into 500 million Europeans’ private lives.”

Has the golden penny dropped yet?

In unprecedented times of freedom in Ireland, free from past colonial rule, we wilfully welcome colonisation by the technology industry. Just as the British empire dominated our history, the empire of big data may come to define our future. As gatekeepers, we must recognize that with great power comes great responsibility, and if the companies shirk their responsibilities, it falls to us, the people of Ireland, to call them to account. Such is the job currently bestowed on Irish Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes, who

as a good European, [ ] do accept the logic of the one-stop shop and [ ] will accept the consequences and the burdens that go with it.

Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown, and so it should, this is a global paradigm shift that we have come to regulate. We are at a cross-roads. To the West, a system enshrined in law to protect big business using big data. To the East, Europe grappling with laws to protect individuals, even their right to be forgotten!

This is Ireland’s golden opportunity to contribute & shape a society built on trust, transparency and truth. The warning signs are stark, as highlighted in Obama commissioned “Findings of the Big Data and Privacy Working Group Review”. The one-stop shop approach — where a lead role is given to regulators in the country where each company has its European headquarters — empowers and compels us to define our identity, to wield that power.

It is our global social responsibility, our time to grasp the lead, even if we must bite the hand that feeds us.