* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From tracking the spread of COVID-19 to Big Tech’s move into publishing, data privacy is the defining challenge of our generation
Jamal Ahmed is CEO of Kazient Privacy Experts and a Fellow of Information Privacy
Today is data privacy day, and unlike previous data privacy days it is part of a popular cause for the human rights of individuals around the world. When this day was first established in 2007, it was only recognised by those who are, like me, in the data privacy industry.
But 2021 will be the year that privacy finally goes mainstream, judging by the backlash against recent moves by WhatsApp and others that were perceived as compromising the right to digital privacy.
Data privacy is perhaps the defining challenge of our generation. Between Big Tech, expanding government data operations due to the pandemic, and corporate data mishandlings, data privacy has affected the life of virtually everyone who owns a smartphone.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced millions around the world to reconsider the relationship between personal privacy and public security, including health security.
In large, publics have been happy to trade a little privacy - for example through a test and trace app - if it means they can keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe. Whilst citizens have fulfilled their end of bargain and granted governments and private companies more access to their personal data, they have sometimes fallen short in keeping that data secure and private.
In the UK, one of the most advanced economies in the world, Public Health Wales accidentally published 18,000 people’s COVID test results. Public Health England lost 15,000 positive reports because they ran their operation off an excel spreadsheet. It is against this backdrop that privacy has become a hot button issue amongst individuals who previously would not have been preoccupied with what is often seen as a niche technical area.
As well as governments needing to increase their safeguarding of privacy rights, companies must also raise their game. In August 2020, the ex-ceo of Uber Joe Sullivan was charged with one count of obstruction of justice, and one count of misprision of a felony as a result of his offering $100,000 to hackers in order to cover up a data breach.
Data is increasingly (and rightly) being viewed as a personal resource; the basis of how companies like Twitter, Google and Facebook make a profit is by trading something that belongs to their users in a personal sense.
This level of understanding is new to many, who up until recently thought they were ‘paying’ those platforms with their attention. Now they realise that they are paying with their data - and the perceived lack of transparency about what is done with it has led to increased caution.
So what’s next for data privacy? The process of extracting and commodifying personal data is here to stay - not only in industrialised nations but in the Global South. Just as colonialists depleted vast sums of natural resources in Asia and Africa from the 16th to the 20th century, Big Tech companies are now harvesting the most precious commodity of the 21st century - data - from all over the globe.
Users in those markets, where data protections like the EU’s GDPR are often absent or not enforced, are particularly vulnerable.
That vulnerability has serious social consequences, since data-driven business models are not just a method of extracting profit, but of extending ideology too. Evidence of data colonialism can be found in how Cambridge Analytica perfected it’s model in over 200 elections around the world,
By extracting data through opaque means, Cambridge Analytica was able to manipulate the voting behaviours, and therefore political outcomes, in elections across the globe.
The East India Company annexed territories and resources, but data colonialism’s power is deeper: It enables the subversion of thought and activity, whilst profiting off the appropriated data.
One of my predictions for 2021 is that these intrusions through the use of user data will become more commonplace. But the resistance - just like anti-colonial resistance movements a century ago - will also grow. 2021 is the year that many more will demand as much privacy for their digital persona as they do for their physical persons.