Data sharing-the guiding principle should be informed consent

27 11 2009

There are many good reasons why both governments and businesses may want to capture, analyse and share data. Good in the sense that the intention is to create mutual benefit for all concerned. In some ways we would like digital marketing, for example,  to be more targeted than it is, if only to avoid the torrent of spam email inflicted on us. The gathering of statistical information by governments can also be used to plan service provision and state investments in a more rational way. So I do not take  the view that governments and big business are out to get us and that any data gathering is inevitably an unwarrantable intrusion into privacy.

However, while the interests of data  gatherers and those whose data is gathered (datees perhaps?) may be congruent, they also may not. This is a particularly crucial point now that we leave such a long electronic data trial behind us through phones, email and internet browsing. We should understand as well that governments have a secular tendency to gather information for its own sake. This tendency is particularly exacerbated today when politicians and others in the state apparatus are more isolated from their constituents than before. In wishing to reconnect they are very keen on gathering as much information about us in as many ways as they can. Their insecurity also inclines them to want to police society more closely , hence current attempts to have access to all the electronic  data held by phone companies.

The discussion around data sharing and privacy is very complex. However I think there is one principle that, if it were adopted, would enable a way to benchmark what should and should not be allowable. That is the principle of informed consent. In other words, those whose data is being collected should have agreed in advance that this should be so. The principle of informed consent is implicit in any democratic society. If we need a legal definition of informed consent which we could apply to data gathering we can go to the Nuremberg trials of 1947.

The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision.

It should be informed because effective democracy requires people to understand what is being done to them and in their name. It should involve active consent because that is the essence of democratic government. In practice this should mean that any information in data form should only be stored or shared with the prior active consent of the individual concerned. There should always be an opt-in rather than an opt-out button. The onus is on the data gatherers and sharers to persuade and convince that this is the right thing to do.

This approach to data sharing is consistent with the view that we are autonomous citizens whose cooperation and consent with the state or with business is an active conscious decision taken with all the facts discuss and debated out in the open. In that sense it is an approach which would contribute towards a broader democratic renewal.

 





Democratic reform and the Titanic

1 06 2009
Asset bubbles + zombie political parties = ?

Asset bubbles + zombie political parties = ?

The news that the last survivor of the Titanic, Lillian Gertrud Asplund, has died reminds us that rearranging the deckchairs on that doomed vessel has since been a metaphor for wasting time on trivial things while disaster looms. The current discussion on democratic reform falls into that category. Whatever may or may not be the merits of proportional representation, the discussion about them at this point is almost entirely irrelevant to the real problems we face. The debacle over MPs’ expenses is partly the product of underlying anger about the recession, partly a response to politicians lecturing us about personal morality for years, and partly their own fault for making greed the official cause of the recession itself. These are all symptoms of a political crisis and not causes.

These contingent factors have precipitated a crisis in public confidence in the parties. But the bankruptcy of our political culture is the culmination of a long process of deterioration in politics, not the cause of it. The political parties have had their political blood drained away over the years: zombie parties propped up by bubbles in the economy

The problem of the emptiness of politics is not going to disappear simply because we vote for MPs in a different way. Neither is it right to see this crisis simply as a distraction from dealing with the economy, as the head of the CBI reminds us today. It is the crisis of politics that has led us into this recession and that has also caused the weak and vacillating response to it. The recession has exposed the problems for all to see and it is this public exposure that is now bringing down the political parties.

The second part of Sean Collins’ excellent essay on the difference between the 1930s Depression and today ends by making the point that the US President FD Roosevelt, whatever his failings, at least tried to attack the cause of the Depression in a bold and experimental way. This kind of openness to experimentation does not mean making Esther Rantzen an MP, it means throwing off many of the conservative ways of thinking and operating that have become part of our way of life.

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