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Privacy and identity in 2012

    In the ninth of the CPS' 'UK Policy Resolutions for 2012' series, Yorick Wilks, a CPS Research Fellow, calls on the government to scrap the Data Protection Act. This morning, in the eighth in the series , Andrea Leadsom MP outlined measures to increase competition in banking.

    UK Policy Resolutions for 2012:

    • Scrap the Data Protection Act in its current form
    • Extend our existing system of anonymous cash cards

    Glen Mulcaire recently told the Leveson inquiry that “Privacy is for paedos”, which caused a bit of a stir. Others have said the same less aggressively but no less controversially: Marc Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, famously said “Privacy is dead”.  How worried should we be about privacy and our internet identity?

    One specifically British problem is we have Data Protection legislation and the Freedom of Information Act pulling different ways: On the one hand, you are not allowed to publish the names of your cricket club on the web without registering your intention; and you may not even be able to publish a remark about someone’s health, lest that imply access to privileged health information. There is an obvious contradiction between that and the freedom of access companies and the State have to electronic transactions of all kinds. 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. 

    The UK public, the most surveilled population in Western Europe, is ambivalent about this: we may not approve of car number plate-reading police cameras on major, yet when an awful murder occurs, we take some comfort in these records, and the traces of phone calls and credit card transactions. This tension is not so blatant in Germany, on the one hand , with its strong restrictions on all state access to data, nor in the US, on the other, with its lack of constraints on access to data, public and private. 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. As a recent editorial in Vanity Fair put it succinctly: Governments seem to want “Transparency for you, but privacy for them”.



    Data should not be sacrosanct and we should scrap the Data Protection Act in its current form. The key principle must be an individual’s control of his/her data, and the right to know what is held on them, way beyond current minimal access we have to credit agencies and their records, and we should  have at least to the Spanish system of actually possessing our own state records, including health.

    Eric Birch has expressed the key proposal that we should move to a system where we reveal as little or as much of our identity as we choose at each transaction so that no giant global data footprint outside our control can be assembled. Such a concept is perfectly consistent with the UK legal concept of identity, or rather the lack of one, where one may still legally use any name we like, so long as no fraud is intended.

    One small example: we need to extend our existing system of anonymous cash cards: all it requires is that our bank - and it is our bank after all - certifies on line that this card can pay such and such a sum. There is no reason why we should be identified in doing that, or repeat all our details for the thousandth time simply to enable more advertising to be sent to us. Major retailer web sites could develop between them a system of badging sites that operate in that way so as to attract competition.


    Yorick Wilks is Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and professor of Artificial Intelligence (Emeritus) at the University of Sheffield. He blogs regularly for the Centre for Policy Studies.

    This article represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily represent the policy outlook of the Centre for Policy Studies, its board, staff or affiliated members.  

    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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    Anonymous - About 1807 days ago

    This reads like a simple roiianalizatton of the Classe's refusal to repudiate non-violence. In every CEGEP where there was a SECRET ballot, the student boycott was voted down. The problem has not been the protesting, nor even the civil disobedience, which relies for its effectiveness of course on restraint on the part of the police, but on the attempt by the students' groups to claim to represent the studentry as a whole. And behind the Classe, providing funding and logistical support, is the force of the notoriously undemocratic FTQ, which is desperate to have the Charest Government dismissed because it intends to curtail the worker placement powers of the union, which have been the source of the mafia-related corruption of the Quebec construction industries. The Charest Government's tuition raises, ill-conceived and unnecessary in economic terms as they are, have not been the main focus of, but rather just the excuse for, the Classe's protests. Rather, as the Classe has itself declared, changing the tuition increases will not stifle the Classe's opposition, since what they actually seek is substitution of democratically legitimate Charest Government. So what we have here, despite the appearance of this being about student grievance, is actually a corporatist and populist alliance of two undemocratic organizations (the FTQ and the CLASSE), which have attempted, by media-savvy promotion of yes/no choices, and by using deliberate measures to stifle free opposition to their points of view (e.g. intimidating other students and branding them scabs, intimidating women and young workers on FTQ job-sites) to claim authority to speak for Quebec society as a whole. In other words, the Classe is a classic FASCIST organization, following Arendt's description of the term. Despite the economic stupidity of the Charest Government, we must support its legitimacy. And if the Classe wants to be taken seriously, let it hold secret ballots involving all students in each CEGEP; finally, if it wishes to oppose the Charest Government, let it do so openly, without face coverings or the pretension that it speaks for Quebec youth let the Classe acknowledge that it is a mere pressure group, and then have at it.

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