This blog was written by our Commissioner, Emma Martins, and first appeared in The Guernsey Press
on 31 March 2022.
From devices tracking our every move to algorithms exploiting our browsing history, our data is a valuable resource – which is why it needs to be protected, says Guernsey’s data protection commissioner Emma Martins.
"It is an enormous privilege to be offered this platform to discuss data, its protection and the work we do at the Office of the Data Protection Authority.
This is not generally a subject top of people’s minds and I do not pretend otherwise. However, it is my sincere hope that, with a little time to consider and reflect on the issue, we can all start to look at it through a different lens.
Whenever someone talks publicly about the work they do, or the thoughts they have, there is always a risk of a triggering of negative comments and response. This reflects the extraordinarily privileged position we all enjoy, living in a democracy where we can often take for granted the extensive rights and freedoms which so many others in the world are deprived of. Freedom of expression is one of those rights. Privacy and data protection is another. I want to use this opportunity to encourage both a reflection and appreciation of that, something which has been brought into stark focus with the unfolding tragic events in Ukraine.
Data drives almost everything we do. Devices track our every move and record our every activity. CCTV cameras follow us in private and public spaces. Sometimes we are aware of this – such as when we use our face or fingerprint to unlock our phone. Sometimes we may not be aware of it – such as when algorithms crunch our browsing history to profile and target us.
How often do we take time to think about the vast data trail each of us leaves behind every minute of every day? Who has it? What are they doing with it? Who else will it be given to?
Data is mostly invisible, existing in distant ‘clouds’. This means that we often do not see the harms that result from poor or malicious data handling as something tangible.
One recent visible example was a data breach by the Ministry of Defence, revealing the email addresses of some 250 Afghan interpreters, potentially putting their lives at risk. Another powerful case in point was the algorithm that caused a grading crisis across UK schools in 2020. The pandemic meant that exams were not held, so in their place, this algorithm was supposed to provide accurate assessments of pupils based on prior performance. But the grades allocated by the algorithm were around 40% lower than predictions, causing an uproar which prompted the government to overrule the algorithm in cases where students had been downgraded.
These things may not have affected you directly, but that does not make it any less real for those who were.
Equally, many may feel they ‘have nothing to hide’ but that too requires a different perspective because looking after people’s data is not about hiding, it is about protecting. For example, when you visit your GP you want to be seen in a private room, with the door closed. Why? Not because you have something to hide, but because you have a legitimate desire for confidentiality.
Data protection and data privacy is much like other rights and freedoms – the less you have of them, the easier they are to recognise. We assume the doctor will see us in private and do not give it a second thought. But if the door was left open, we would certainly think about it then.
If data protection is not top of our minds, this reflects the fact that it is something we are lucky enough to have had for a while and has never really been under threat.
But recent tragic events have served to remind us that human rights are fragile. We all need to play a part in building and maintaining them. For the ODPA, that involves ensuring the law is applied fairly and consistently and we do all we can to support the regulated community to fulfil their duties, and our citizens to understand their rights. For all those organisations that handle personal data, that involves genuine engagement (not just a tick box exercise) with the ethical as well as legal imperative to apply the law’s compliance standards. And for all of us as citizens, that involves taking a little time to stop and think about how much of our private information is out there and why it is important that there is security and accountability around that data. Consumer attitudes and behaviour really do matter.
Data is not one thing, it is many things. It offers us amazing opportunities for innovation, improvement and progress. It also presents us with very real challenges and risks. Human beings are increasingly being viewed as a natural resource. Some of the most influential algorithms in the world are content selection algorithms on social media platforms. They determine what billions of people see and read every day. The 2021 US presidential elections, Brexit and the pandemic have brought into sharp relief how easily these algorithms can be deployed to influence or disenfranchise people. But the true scale and impact of content manipulation has been illustrated all too clearly in Russia in recent weeks.
So, we have a choice – we can let others determine the path we head down, or we can play our part in ensuring progress is built on supporting human values rather than exploiting them. This is not, and never has been, just an issue of technology. It is as much a social, political and cultural issue too, because technology cannot fix things that society does not want fixed.
The regulation around the handling of personal data is often seen as a burden. I understand that, but I also want to challenge it. There are regulatory requirements in most areas of our lives and it is interesting to consider those that we tend to see as burdensome, those we pay little regard to and those we welcome. Generally, where we clearly understand the harms that the regulation is seeking to remove or reduce, we engage more positively. A good example is traffic lights – yes, they can be a pain if we are in a rush, but we don’t have any trouble understanding how it makes us all safer. Being made to pause, slow down, take care or have regard for others should not be a burden in any context, it should be a way of life.
Data protection laws exist to give you autonomy, control, dignity and protection. It is our job, at the ODPA, to do all we can to improve understanding, appreciation and compliance across our community – not because we want to make life burdensome, but because we recognise the part it plays in allowing us all to enjoy the broader framework of rights and freedoms that we are so very fortunate enough to rarely have to think about. Many are not so lucky."