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The Balance Between Open Data and Privacy – Wall Street Journal


Wall Street Journal

According to a recent Deloitte report, the top two issues that would make a customer consider never using a company again are data-related: 70% of customers said they would consider breaking off the relationship if the company failed to keep their personal data safe; 56% said that selling anonymized data—data that had personally identifiable information removed—to other companies would potentially result in similar action.

The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has thrown his weight behind an index that attempts to rank the nations of the world, or a subset of them, according to the impact the Web has made on them. Included in that calculation is an idea of the openness of data—that free and open data is a good thing.

But is that assumption correct? Is there such a thing as being too open, of data being too free? At some point is there not a risk that opening data is closing privacy?

Professor Nigel Shadbolt of the U.K.’s Southampton University, Mr. Berners-Lee’s colleague at the country’s soon-to-be-opened Open Data Institute, certainly believes that the time is right for the U.K. to face up to the moral entanglement of open data and privacy. He has called for a Warnock-style commission into the issue.

In 1984 the U.K commissioned an inquiry into human fertilization and embryology, chaired by the British philosopher Dame Mary Warnock. It laid the ground for the ensuing legislation but crucially, said Mr. Shadbolt, the report was commissioned in advance of the technology. It sought answers to problems that had been anticipated but not yet encountered, and to construct a moral, rather than legal, framework.

“Within the broad limits of legislation there is room for different, and perhaps much more stringent, moral rules,” the report said. “What is legally permissible may be thought of as the minimum requirement for a tolerable society.”

Speaking earlier to The Wall Street Journal about privacy, Mr. Shadbolt said it is often said, “We give up on privacy because we live in the Panopticon. A lot of people think there is an inevitability about this [loss of privacy]. But the availability of data does not sanction its use.”

The commission “had a broad range of scenarios that were technically plausible and asked themselves what does a democratic society with our kind of values want?”

According to Harvey Lewis, analytics research director at consultants Deloitte, the Warnock report was a template for such an inquiry. “One thing the report did very well was its focus on the individual as the center of the discussion. Exactly the same principle should apply to data.”


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