Why it’s time for the ‘hidden agenda’ to emerge

Published: 3 October 2022

This blog was written by our Commissioner, Emma Martins, and first appeared in the Guernsey Press on 28 September 2022.

The Bailiwick’s Data Protection Commissioner Emma Martins takes a moment to reflect on how history continues to shape our future, and why we need to understand the origins of the rights we enjoy today.

Regardless of the different views people may have, the end of our Elizabethan era is momentous. We are, of course, ‘living history’ every moment of every day of our lives. But there are some days, some moments, that you feel the weight and significance of that history in a way that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Moments like that are opportunities to take a little time to reflect on our lives and our own histories as well as the lives and the histories of others. In this hectic world, those moments are all too rare. They are valuable and we would do well to try and take more of them.

Looking back to look forward is not only interesting, it is essential.

During World War II, the Allies adopted as their basic war aims the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Towards the end of the war, the United Nations Charter was debated, drafted, and ratified to reaffirm "faith in fundamental human rights, and dignity and worth of the human person" and commit all member states to promote "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".

In the aftermath of the war, the scale of the horrors of the Nazi regime became clear and left the world reeling. The impact of that time remains with us – in the survivors and their families, and in all our shared histories.
As the war came to an end, there was a consensus across the global community that the UN Charter needed to go further.

And so the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was born. It was a milestone in the history of human rights. Drafted by representatives with different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world, it set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected. The Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948.

The history of protecting personal data is a complex one but the UDHR is seen by many as the moment that it began its journey. Since then we have seen the development of comprehensive and specific laws across Europe and beyond giving rights to individuals and imposing responsibilities on organisations in respect of the processing of personal data.

There is a quote from a talk by former Information and Privacy Commissioner for British Colombia, David Flaherty, that I heard many years ago that has stayed with me since –

European data protection laws include the hidden agenda of discouraging a recurrence of the Nazi efforts to control the population, and so seek to prevent the reappearance of an oppressive bureaucracy that might use existing data for nefarious purposes. This concern is such a vital foundation of current legislation that it is rarely expressed in formal discussions. This helps to explain the general European preference for strict licensing systems of data protection…thus European legislators have reflected a real fear of Big Brother based on common experience with the potential destructiveness of surveillance through record keeping. None wish to repeat the experiences endured under the Nazis during World War II.”

So many of our laws, our values, our sense of justice and injustice come from our shared experiences. I have never understood why the ‘agenda’ in respect of data protection has been so hidden. It seems entirely counterproductive for it to remain so.

We are fortunate here in the Bailiwick to have lived in relative peace since the Occupation of WWII, but we also know how fragile that peace can be, how easy it is for us to take the freedoms, rights and protections we have for granted.
I don’t for a moment seek to compare the protection of our personal data to some of the fundamental rights such as the right to life or freedom from torture. My point is, the rights that exist in functioning democracies do not exist in separate silos – they are interwoven and interdependent.

We saw in Europe during the Holocaust how data was used to facilitate and support genocide. The world has changed a great deal since then and technology has transformed our relationships with each other and with the state. The risks remain but are in different forms. The legislation that is in place to protect our personal information is in place to ensure that those who have that data handle it responsibly and accountably.

When we have had a law like that for so many years, it is all too easy to overlook what it is there for and why we have it in place.
Now is the time for the ‘hidden agenda’ David Flaherty refers to, to emerge.


Related content: BBC podcast: 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy - Hollerith punch card

Understanding the motivation for a law’s development is so important to help us all remain focused on what its intention is. It is worth ten minutes of your time to listen to this podcast from Tim Harford: 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy - Hollerith punch card - BBC Sounds that beautifully explains how a 19th century machine for processing census data laid the foundations for today’s data-centric economy.

Technology is neither good nor bad, it’s what humans choose to do with it that matters. The power derived from data may have shifted from government to commercial (laws originally intended to protect the citizen from the state, are today also about protecting the citizen from corporate giants) – but the principle of accountability still stands. Recent history also shows us, tragically, how fragile those protections are. If you are interested to delve deeper into this subject please listen to our 15 min podcast on how WWII Nazi atrocities led to the development of data protection laws.