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Your personal data was talked about at the Web Summit, but it looks like you might have to pay to keep it safe in the future

Privacy could become a product purchased by the rich and an unattainable luxury for the poor, writes Maria Helen Murphy.

Maria Helen Murphy

SINCE 2010, THE Web Summit has attempted to highlight Ireland’s status as a major tech hub.

With companies like Facebook and Twitter establishing European Head Quarters in Dublin and a vibrant start-up scene, the global tech community has been interested in Ireland for some time.

Recently, however, Ireland has been attracting a different kind of attention as questions have been asked about the data protection and privacy implications of modern technologies. Since the Snowden revelations, tensions between the European Union and the United States concerning data protection issues have been rising.

The right to be forgotten 

Examples of this tension include the “right to be forgotten” and concerns about the “safe harbour” transfer regime.

With so many international companies established in Ireland, attention naturally turns to our Data Protection Commissioner. In light of this environment of innovation and regulation, I attempted to take the temperature at this week’s Web Summit and assessed how the tech industry plans to address the privacy challenges of the modern age.

While the networking and investment opportunities are the core of the Web Summit, some space has been provided to address the broader questions about the role of technology in modern life.

The Society Stage, in particular, serves this role at the Web Summit. Early on Tuesday morning, the European Union Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, acknowledged the transatlantic tensions in her speech, asserting that the US tech industry has finally “woken up” to the power of the European Union.

Discussion at the Web Summit

Evidence of this heightened awareness was clear in several of the talks given by tech company executives at the Web Summit. From the Machine Stage to the Enterprise Stage, the data protection and security question came up frequently.

As Emily O’Reilly pointed out, one response to the increasingly apparent power of the European Union over the tech industry has been additional lobbying in Brussels. This is to be expected. The tech industry is global, Europe is a huge and valuable market, and European regulation has the potential to impact how tech companies operate globally, not merely in the EU.

shutterstock_280929014 Source: Shutterstock/Valeri Potapova

Increased lobbying was always going to be one element of the tech industry response to European Union data protection demands. While Senior Vice-President at Oracle, Reggie Bradford, spoke of the company’s commitment to customer privacy at the Web Summit on Wednesday, he also implied that European Data Protection rules need to be rewritten.

Pay for privacy 

While there is resistance to the European approach to data protection, the market for privacy enhanced technologies continues to grow. Many in the technology community are developing tools that protect against personal, corporate, and government surveillance. While some of these companies are young, established players, including Apple, now acknowledge privacy protection as a feature that many consumers are willing to pay for.

Recent consumer research supports this position. In the post-Snowden environment, where the interest in privacy is not dead, but alive and kicking, several companies are attempting to exploit gaps in the market and develop products that meet the needs of the privacy conscious consumer.

While many of the attendees at the Web Summit might be most concerned with exploiting the monetary value of customer data, some green shoots of privacy awareness could be found among the start-up exhibition stands that lined the RDS this week. A clear example of changing attitudes, at least in certain pockets of the community, is found in the motto of a Swiss start-up.

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shutterstock_148978895 Source: Shutterstock/Maksim Kabakou

Privacy is the new currency 

According to BinaryEdge, exhibiting at the Web Summit today, data may be the new oil but “privacy is the new currency”.

In recent years, there has been a boom in the information security industry. Regular security scandals, such as those involving Ashley Madison and TalkTalk, have only increased investor interest in the industry. Unsurprisingly, several start-ups at the Web Summit seek to address these issues.

RazorSecure, for example, aims to help organisations identify nefarious activity by providing real time security monitoring. As adequate information security is a condition precedent for privacy, the increased commercial interest in security technologies is positive.

While secure systems provide significant economic and societal benefits that both technology companies and governments value, secure systems also help protect the privacy rights that are important for individuals.

In addition to security start-ups targeting their products at commercial organisations, the Web Summit also hosted start-ups focused on providing enhanced privacy at the consumer level.

Qwant, for example, is a French search engine that states its philosophy as being based on the principles of “no user tracking” and “no filter bubble”, effectively pitching itself in opposition to the Google philosophy. Of course, company statements like this may not always align with company practice, but they do indicate the perception of demand for such products.

One issue to watch for, however, as commercial privacy solutions continue to be offered to consumers, is the risk that privacy could become a product purchased by the rich and an unattainable luxury for the poor.

Maria Helen Murphy is a lecturer in Law at Maynooth University. You can follow here on Twitter.

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Maria Helen Murphy

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