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Digital Footprints: Two parliamentary acts in the UK pulling opposite ways

    Yorick Wilks, Professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield, writes on the ambivalent nature of UK legislation towards data privacy.

    A great deal of reform and clarification are needed on the conflicts between Data Protection legislation and the Freedom of Information Act: we need to move to a situation where individuals have and feel far more control over their own life data than they do now.

    The contradictions in the current UK situation are evident to all intelligent observers way beyond the closed circle of experts. On the one hand, it is not permitted to publish the minutest of details such as the names of a local cricket club without registering your intention; or a tutor the names and marks of students; and one may not even be able to publish a remark about someone’s health lest they imply access to privileged health information.

    On the other hand, it is common knowledge that the British State processes a substantial percentage of our emails and phone records at GCHQ as and when it chooses and without any need of access to the courts, even though a journalist has no such protected privilege. Police officers with whom I have worked told me that one third of the men in South Yorkshire between 18 and 50 are in the police computer, though the public seem unaware of this.

    I am not so much questioning the strong constraints on free speech and the right to publish in the Data Protection Act (which would be intolerable in the US where only health information is at all protected) but remarking on the obvious contradiction between those constraints and the freedom of access of companies and the State to electronic transactions of all kinds. The contradiction is obvious, as is the ambivalence of the UK public, the most surveilled population in Western Europe: we may not approve of car number plate-reading police cameras on major bridges and more CCTV cameras than in the rest of Europe put together, yet when an awful murder occurs we take some comfort in these records, as well as traces of phone calls and credit card transactions. We may even express regret that, unlike Australians, we are still able to buy the unregistered pay-as-you-go phones used for bombing attacks.

    Thus, in the UK we suffer a radical contradiction in our attitudes to the public/commercial and private use of data: one that is not so blatant in Germany, with its strong restrictions on all state access to data, nor in the US, with its lack of constraints on access to public and private data. I believe the UK should move one way or the other, and my instincts tell me the US does a better job overall than we do - although some commentators see a similar contradiction there. As a recent editorial in Vanity Fair put it succinctly “Governments seemed to want transparency for you, but privacy for me”. Data should not be sacrosanct and we should scrap the Data Protection Act in its current form and simultaneously reform the absurd UK libel laws when use is made of such data (and there is already widespread agreement on that latter point).

    At the same time we must impose more transparency on governments, who have none of the rights that individuals have, both as a matter of basic political philosophy and as a matter of practical policy. Here we can welcome the announcement from the government that there will be a “complete revolution in transparency” by publishing all data online, something the CPS’ Liam Maxwell (now appointed as a government adviser) first proposed.

    None of this, it should be obvious, would license anyone to hack the phones of others!

    Yorick Wilks is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Sheffield, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. He studied maths and philosophy at Cambridge, where he got his PhD in 1968. He has published numerous articles and six books in artificial intelligence concerned with language processing.

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