A Rare Note of Optimism on Data Privacy

It’s been said that data is the oil of the 21st century. I’m sure by now we all know our data, not just what we get up to online but also anything that can be digitally tracked, is coveted by governments and businesses alike. The debate over who owns that data and how it can/should be used is still playing out and likely will for some time, but in the meantime continuous education and conversation about data privacy is important.

This Saturday, January 28th is Data Privacy Day. It’s an international effort held annually to encourage conversation and education on respecting privacy, safeguarding data, and enabling trust. It’s a call to consumers, business, and governments to consider data privacy when making decisions about theirs, or other people’s data.

Everyone has read about data breaches, Internet of Things hacks, the use of stingrays (ISMI catchers) by the RCMP, ransomware, and all things Snowden related. All of these issues are worrisome and deserve consideration, but bad news sells and in the interest of optimism I’d like to shed some light on a few positive advances that have been made over the last few years that leave me hopeful of our future and for data privacy.

The use of transparency reports is the first thing that comes to mind. Statements issued on a regular basis by a company, disclosing information on requests for users’ data, records, or content. Some industries, like the telecom industry for example have started to produce voluntary transparency reports which cover how they handle and comply with requests for customers’ private data, in this case by government agencies and law enforcement. Though not all the telcos produce one, it’s a step in the right direction and possibly one step closer to government agencies or law enforcement doing the same.

Another data point with room for celebration is the use of aggregated and anonymized data for social good. There is amazing potential for aggregated and anonymized data to improve everything from health care to public safety, and a variety of social issues in between. In fact it’s already started! You might have seen recently that Uber is releasing anonymized and aggregated data ride and traffic data to help urban planners make informed decisions about our cities. It is possible to protect the private lives of citizens while also opening up opportunities for business and for social good. Have you ever wondered how services and apps get data to report traffic patterns and congestion on roads? It’s anonymized and aggregated cellphone data! Will big data cause the next revolution in social impact?

Through datafication it’s inevitable that, in the near future, nearly all our interactions will be collected, analyzed, and transformed into new forms of value. So as Data Privacy Day is upon us, remember that education and conversations about privacy go a long way, but so does vigilance on how we are taking our own responsibility to safeguard our personal information and how much we expose about ourselves online.