Building a safer, more inclusive data culture

Published: 23 May 2023

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is widely seen as the gold standard for data protection legislation worldwide and is the foundation of the Bailiwick’s Data Protection Law. As we grapple with an unprecedented leap in technological developments which could shake the foundations of democracy if not handled carefully, Bailiwick Data Protection Commissioner Emma Martins looks at the challenges ahead as GDPR and our local legislation mark 5 years since coming into force.

It was many years ago (more than I care to admit!) that I started on my professional path in data protection. Back then, although I had responsibility for it, data protection was not even in the job title, it was seen as something too trivial. It seems hard to imagine that now, living as we do in a world fuelled by data and with those working in the field increasingly recognised for the critical role they play. 

In those early days of my career, I don’t recall a single news story about data and its protection. It simply wasn’t on the agenda. Today we are overwhelmed with stories about the new revolution we find ourselves in. Last year’s launch of ChatGPT heralded a new chapter of public interest and discourse that we have not seen before as technologists, politicians, philosophers and the media contemplate the huge impact advances in AI will have on all aspects of our lives.

It is at once terrifying and wonderful to be in the midst of this moment in history. Terrifying because of the potential for very significant harms if new technologies are rolled out without being rooted  in human values and ethics. Wonderful because of the potential for good, if these things are embedded from the outset.

It has always saddened me when data protection is framed as ‘anti-innovation’ and ‘anti-progress’. It is neither of these things. It provides a framework that, if followed, ensures the progress we make, especially in areas such as artificial intelligence, is built on human values rather than the exploitation of them. We do not see the embedding of safety and rights in other areas (think of pharmaceuticals or air travel) as ‘anti-progress’. Rather, we understand that progress can only happen as long as those things are built in.

This month sees the 5-year anniversary of the EU’s GDPR, and our own equivalent legislation. Questions of regulation (what it should look like and how it should be done) have never been more relevant and more challenging.

The speed of technological advancements is increasingly hard to keep up with, even for those working in the area. Living, as we do, in a small jurisdiction, it can be easy to think that we are not part of these bigger conversations. But these things affect us all so everyone must have a voice. This is an issue not only relevant, but essential, for every single one of us. How we treat data is how we treat ourselves and each other. We matter as individuals and as a society. It follows, therefore, that data matters. 

May 2023 also marks the five-year anniversary of the Office of the Data Protection Authority (ODPA). With the legislation giving regulators greater powers than ever before, and data protection regulation becoming increasingly relevant for all aspects of our lives, we were clear back in 2018 that the ODPA could not be an ordinary office. It is easy to sort out the bricks and mortar, the stationery orders, and all the other logistical necessities of a new office. The real challenge, I would argue, is creating the culture and values that sit at the heart of it. That takes time and it takes the right people. With power comes responsibility. If that sounds rather trite, it does not make it any less true. As I now look towards the end of my tenure working for the Bailiwick, not only do I feel a huge sense of privilege, I also feel a huge sense of pride that the ODPA has such strong foundations and clarity of purpose. We all understand that we work to serve our community and want to do so with the highest standards of professionalism and integrity. Culture and values matter.

In the work that we continue to do here at the ODPA, we know that the law is critical. It needs to be complied with and infractions dealt with. But we also know that legal compliance is more likely where we have engaged hearts and minds.

Encouraging an appreciation of why the law’s protections matter for us all and building a clear purpose in doing all we can to promote high standards of data governance is good for the Bailiwick for two very important reasons - it supports our economy and it supports our democracy. We should take care to never take those things for granted.

The five-year anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on lessons we have learned during this period. We aim to keep the conversations going in our community, encouraging more inclusive and constructive engagement as we look to the challenges of navigating our digital future – together.