Keeping the data dynamite safe

Data is like dynamite – it doesn’t have its own ethics and it’s what we do with it that’s important.

That was the verbal fuse-wire that Professor Mark Whitehorn used to ignite a roundtable Teradata hosted last month, discussing the explosive issue of data privacy.

As a company that wants to tackle the issue of data transparency head-on, we assembled a panel of industry experts to direct their considerable brain-power at the challenges ahead.

The big thinkers who gathered at the Aqua Shard in London included:

  • Stephen Brobst, Teradata’s Chief Technical Officer
  • Michele Nati, Technical Lead in Privacy and Trust at Digital Catapult – a flagship of the UK Government’s digital economy strategy
  • Gus Hosein, the Executive Director of Privacy International – a respected commentator on data privacy
  • Joanne Bone, a partner at the law firm Irwin Mitchell with a special interest in data protection

Right from the start of the debate, it was clear that one of major issues looming on the Big Data privacy landscape actually has nothing to do with coding or analytics – it is legislation. Legislation that could be a great opportunity or a considerable threat, depending on your point of view.

Michele Nati stressed that while everyone present was concerned about the huge growth in data volumes from the Internet of Things, it was fundamentally about people and not inanimate objects. If trust is to be built, it will have to rely on open data, which is what the European Commission is pushing for, he said.

Picking up this point, Gus Hosein said in order to avoid Big Data becoming synonymous with Big Brother, citizens need the protection of the law. Otherwise the burgeoning smart cities brimming with every kind of sensor will lead to vastly-increased surveillance, especially in emerging economies where data protection legislation is as rare as an empty prison. He said the threats to individual privacy also came from insecure infrastructure that allows criminals and Governmental agencies access to personal data.

For Hosein, encryption is a key part of data privacy and one of the ways in which the citizen can protect him or herself. Rather than being a security nightmare for police and intelligence services, he believes it is in fact an under-utilised tool that will keep our data secure anywhere in the world.

The panel’s legal expert, Joanne Bone, put forward the idea that legislation might not be needed if consumers are given a full picture of how organisations used their personal data. She said: “Transparency will push people to provide better security.”

But she warned that EU legislators have transparency as their aim and will impose standards if business does not deal with the problem itself. “That could be very bureaucratic, coming from the EU,” she cautioned.

Addressing this point, Stephen Brobst said there is a danger that poorly conceived data legislation will inflict severe damage on business and curb innovation.

For example, why should consumers be able to carry hard-won data about their profile and preferences from one film-streaming company to its competitor? Consumers will end up paying more for products and services if companies can only hold data for a very limited period, he warned.

Despite this danger, he still believes customers have the right to know more, highlighting that Teradata provides clients with the tools and guidance to boost transparency. He said: “As a consumer, I should be able to see the data you have about me, but in some industries, it is difficult to do that. Teradata cannot force its customers into this, but we can encourage and enlighten.”

Professor Whitehorn admitted that some multi-nationals push the boundaries in the way they handle personal data, but cautioned against placing too much faith in legislators. Governments drawing up new laws are not exactly disinterested parties, he said.

The discussion was drawn to a close with questions from the technology journalists in the audience, who indicated they are less interested in legislation than in rights about individual ownership of data, the future of encryption and the potential of third-party anonymisation.

Ready with a response, Brobst said Teradata already offers customers an encryption interface for personal data and as for anonymisation – there are some interesting start-ups out there.

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