Privacy is gone, now what? Antti Poikola on the airwaves

in the future we need to talk about who can benefit from the data and how

In Finland the latest privacy debate was triggered by a government plan to utilize GPS tracking to overhaul car taxes. Many perceived this as a nefarious plan to install tracking devices. But in fact those tracking devices are already present in the majority of new cars, sold to consumers as a security feature. So instead of a sinister government plot it was all along more of a question who has access to the GPS data and for what purposes.

These complex issues surrounding gathering and utilization of personal data and privacy are hardly restricted to Finland. Mass data gathering by private and public institutions alike is a global phenomenon.

Antti “Jogi” Poikola.

It is in this context that Antti “Jogi” Poikola, a researcher from Helsinki Institute of Information Technology and a long-time open data advocate, discussed issues surrounding privacy and data economy in the Ajantasa radio program hosted by YLE. Poikola addressed various themes surrounding privacy and personal data use posed by callers and social media users.

According to Poikola, privacy is a rather subjective concept. Hundreds of years ago people both had and cared much less about their privacy. As culture became more individualistic privacy became more important. Now changes in technology have led us to a new age of decreasing privacy. Whatever we do, we leave data trails everywhere.

Some of the callers were rather dismissive towards privacy and data gathering. Many though that they have nothing to hide, others that they were simply not interesting enough that anyone would care about their personal data.

But even the least interesting of people can fall into victims of identity theft. And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid technologies that can gather personal information. Poikola told an anecdote about a new Samsung television he had bought. Hidden into the extensive terms of service was a part where the makers discouraged people from having private conversations near the television.

And many services require their users to surrender their personal data, no matter who you are or what you do. “You take it or leave it, there’s no middle road”, Poikola pointed out.

One of the callers thought that in some cases the limits of privacy were too tight. He pointed out to Finland’s attempt at creating an electronic prescription system had failed to stop prescription drug abuse. Poikola agreed that in some cases there is tension between protecting privacy and the common good. In these cases debate over the limits of privacy is needed.

Poikola however saw serious issues in surrendering too much personal information to public services, especially if this information is combined with algorithm-informed decision making. Attempts at creating these kind of systems in the United States had ended up creating seemingly neutral, but deeply biased, systems.

GPS tracker for a car — a sinister tracking device or a valuable security feature? Depends on how you spin it. (Photo courtesy of AliExpress)

Lack of transparency, redundant data gathering, lack of data portability and issues of who gets the benefits form a kind of a bundle of problems which were discussed in the later half of the programme.

Poikola pointed out that data is never gathered unless it’s useful to someone. The essential question is whether the data gives any benefits to those who it is gathered from.

Poikola thought that if personal data is gathered, it should benefit those from whom it is collected.

it’s good to remember that the flow of data is not just one way. Data can be used to very subtly alter people’s behaviours whether it’s about consumer preferences or who to vote for. This process is hard to detect and rather shadowy.

Even when our data is not used to affect us, it’s not always clear who is gathering it and why. Often, especially in the health sector, this problem is linked to redundant data gathering. Some service providers might gather very redundant data but it doesn’t move between different organizations.

The utilization of personal data has some serious ethical challenges, especially when it’s tied to sensitive data such as health data. Nevertheless Poikola remains optimistic. He doesn’t see it possible or desirable to go back to the past. Instead in the future we need to talk about who can benefit from the data and how.

These challenges are tied to government legislation and regulation. While current legislation restricts data use by organizations it also gives organizations the total power to define for what purposes they gather data and how it is used.

The MyData idea.

Poikola thinks that by giving individuals ownership of their own data, “MyData”, a lot of issues in the personal data economy can be resolved.

Rather than organizations having data on us we should have our own data on a personal account in a portable manner.

This would allow us to selectively to lease or lend out our data in exchange for services in a more transparent way.

For that to happen there needs to be a paradigm shift towards personal data ownership in legislation.

You can listen the whole programme in Finnish here: http://areena.yle.fi/1-3937428