What price privacy?
The General Data Protection Regulation is looming and I am contemplating the possibility that damesnet’s only chance of going viral may be to end up as the pitiful victims of an oppressive state hell-bent on portraying the dames – on account of our small and select mailing list – as the successors to Cambridge Analytica. The resulting column inches could shoot us to international notoriety!
I think I have mused here before on the curious paradox of ever-tightening controls on personal data at a time when masses of people seem determined to tell – and show – you more than you ever wanted to know about them. In fact, until recently I’ve had little time for people who bleated about infringements of privacy. Surely most of us, for most of history, would have lived in surroundings – settlements, tribes, villages – where everyone around them knew exactly who they were, what they did, and the identity of their parents unto the third generation. Stifling, maybe, but at least no one ended up lying dead in their home for a month.
But then we – in the West, at least – went for the nuclear option and retreated behind closed doors, with only our nearest and supposedly dearest for company. Westerners who have lived in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have commented on the lack of privacy they experienced, realising how much they take for granted being able to withdraw into one’s own room for solitude and activities that, by and large, we don’t want others to witness, be they associated with personal care or more sinister pastimes.
There seemed to me to be other good reasons for being far less precious about sharing data than we have become. When I worked in community safety, it was bitterly frustrating to see so many schemes with huge potential for tackling a range of problems founder on the rocks of data protection. Maxillo-facial surgeon Professor Jonathan Shepherd at Cardiff University Hospital undertook pioneering outreach work to share information about those who ended up in A & E of a weekend with life-changing injuries, so that pubs and clubs, social and mental health services and police could collaborate to prevent violent crime and disorder. Sadly, his approach proved difficult to replicate elsewhere, chiefly because health services would not pool information.
In a less dramatic example, some local councils sought information on those in their area in receipt of state pensions so that the Fire and Rescue Services could offer them free smoke alarms, but the DWP would not play ball. How crazy is that?
But my predisposition to love data sharing has been rocked by a truly trivial incident. Like everyone else, I am plagued by ads that pop up round my emails, usually reflecting some product or company I’ve recently Googled. I was outraged to see an ad for breast enlargement appear: what sick and twisted algorithm had made a link between – I admit it – my search for the best high-SPF moisturiser and silicone chest furniture? Even worse, I realised with horror at the Wiki editathon that Dame B and I attended, as we worked on a Wiki entry about a notable woman on my laptop with the assistance of a supremely helpful male Wiki expert, that my dames-cred could be shredded at any moment if a pop-up about lady pop-ups popped up!