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Who owns our digital fingerprints?

Think about your day 15 years ago; you could have gone about your business leaving almost no trace of yourself. Not anymore, data is changing our world.

IMAGINE HOW YOU would react, if in five-year’s time, the Irish Government was to introduce a national ID card that had to be carried with you at all times. Then imagine the uproar if that card contained a tracking device. There would be outright revolt at such a gross over-reach on the part of the authorities.

Yet most of us carry a smart phone – we have more mobile phone subscriptions than people in Ireland and 60% of those subscriptions are smartphones according to the latest Comreg figures. Most of us don’t turn off the GPS so the phone is sending messages about our location and much, much more back into the cloud. We are leaving virtual fingerprints everywhere we go and in everything we do in this brave new data-rich society.

But privacy obviously matters to us. We are protective of our data when we are asked to hand it over – just look at the consternation over handing over our PPS numbers to Irish Water or the Department of Education. When we think about the action of giving our data to institutions and bodies that we do not trust, we resist. When we don’t think about it, like when we want the Twitter app on our mobile phone, we don’t seem to make the same sinister connections.

This disconnect is a problem.

Using your data fingerprint

Data is changing our world. The field of data analytics is progressing at a rate beyond anything we have ever experienced.

Think about your day 15 years ago. You could have gone about your business leaving almost no trace of yourself in the ether. Nowadays, every time you check the internet, every time you use your Leapcard, every time you pay for something using your debit card, practically every time you look at your phone screen, a data fingerprint is stored in the cloud. Data analytics is a complicated area but at its heart, it is about making sense of all of those data fingerprints and figuring out how to use them to benefit business or society.

But who does that data belong to? Should we even be talking about ownership in the traditional sense anymore? The problem is that the rate of progression of Big Data research has completely overtaken any thinking about the rights and wrongs of the matter. We simply don’t know what to think about privacy and the ethics of Big Data. In fact the whole thing has moved so quickly that we don’t even know what the questions are anymore.

Trust is at the heart of the issue

Traditional issues of ownership and privacy don’t even begin to cover the myriad of issues here. But one thing is certain. We have a real problem and that problem is trust.

The analysis and use of Big Data is a potential game changer for society. Within all that information could lie the key to shortening hospital waiting lists. It could furnish us will all we need to make wise decisions about education spending. It could provide us with systems for clever energy use. Our cities could become smarter, more efficient. Our healthcare could become entirely personalised.

And yet, two words drown out all of the discussion surrounding Big Data: Big Brother.

Media coverage, political debate, legislation are dominated by the privacy issues. Of course we need to talk about privacy and we need to find a way to really protect the individual and the smallholder in all of this.

However, we need to be very careful. Already EU privacy legislation is on a path that will lead to the halting of important and beneficial research. In 2013 Science Europe, a non-profit organisation representing more than 50 major research funding and research performing organisations throughout Europe, published an opinion paper on “The Benefits of Personal Data Processing for Medical Sciences in the Context of Protection of Patient Privacy and Safety.”

This paper warned of the devastating implications of amendments, if passed, to the European Commission’s proposal for a General Data Protection Regulation. The Commission’s proposals contain a number of provisions and exemptions crucial to facilitating vital medical and health research within a framework of protection of individual rights to privacy.

A Magna Carta for data

We must build trust. Citizen must regain control of personal information but data should be available to researchers. Trust, justifiable trust, is the key. We need a document, a global Magna Carta for data.

Ireland, through the organisation that I lead, the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, is perfectly placed to lead the discussion. We are one of the biggest data research centres in Europe and we’re Irish. In Brussels, we presented our proposal for a Magna Carta for Data to MEPs, industry representatives and researchers.

We need something that protects the individual, that allows progress and that shields us, insofar as is possible, from unintended consequences. Ireland’s international reputation as an honest broker and an island that has successfully negotiated its way to peace places us in the neutral space that’s needed when trust is the central issue.

We need to have this discussion and Ireland should be to the fore of that. We need a Magna Carta for data.

Oliver Daniels is CEO of Insight Centre for Data Analytics. Read Insight’s white paper Towards a Magna Carta for Data here

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