Can it be right to have a transparent public sector while private companies grow rich off people’s personal information?

by Ian Lucas

ONE of the focuses of civil liberties campaigners in recent years has been on the growth of information held about individuals by the state.

Yet while these concerns have grown, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the amounts of data held on individuals by private companies. The area is slowly coming under scrutiny – and is creating a difficult area for the government to regulate.

The pitfalls and problems were laid out in a recent debate in Westminster Hall – notable for several reasons, not least the number of Tory MPs, in a government pledged to cutting red tape, calling for fresh regulation.

In some ways, the shock at recent stories – such as Google’s capturing of personal data from the roadside as its cars compiled pictures for its street view application – is not surprising. One of the side effects of civil liberties campaigns focussing on the role of the state has been, as I said during the debate, that we have paid too little attention to the increase in the collection of information by private organisations.

Some of this information is given by a direct choice – the Facebook status update, the tweet about plans for the evening – even when those using such sites may not have considered all the implications of their actions.

But what happens where information is being gathered in other ways – such as the use of cookies to monitor people’s activities online and target products at them? The passing of internet activity logs by ISPs? Or even those events, such as the street view row, where personal information is taken without consent? These are diverse issues relating to personal; privacy and the real question here for any government is – how do you enforce any system you set up?

Much was made during the debate of a system of self-regulation. I have some concerns about this. Looking at the recent data security issues involving mobile phones and the News of the World, and the response of the press complaints commission, it is clear that some self-regulatory bodies can be less than robust in dealing with complaints. While we should recognise the strengths of self-regulation, such as the possibilities it poses for international agreement, we should also be aware of the dangers a weak system poses.

And I believe there is a wider problem than simply internet regulation which also needs consideration – which is the entire manner in which information about individuals is collected and used by third party organisations.

But how do we tackle this? First, by raising the profile of the issue with the general public. A greater amount of information would help people make an informed decision about their actions. People need to know much more about the scale of the information companies keep, and why it is being kept.

Second, we – in Parliament and in the country at large – need to have a very wide discussion about our next steps. I would be interested to hear people’s views on how we proceed. But I think we must recognise that private organisations should be scrutinised in exactly the same way and to the same extent as governmental organisations.

Can it be right to have a transparent public sector while private companies grow rich off people’s personal information?

Ian Lucas is Labour MP for Wrexham and a shadow business minister.

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One Response to “Can it be right to have a transparent public sector while private companies grow rich off people’s personal information?”

  1. CS Clark says:

    In regards to Facebook and other companies, I would like to see more attention paid to the way that they update terms and conditions and introduce new features as automatically opted-in, and then make it confusing and non-obvious as to what to do to switch this off if you don’t want it. For example, when Facebook introduced a geolocation system, Places, they didn’t make it clear for people who didn’t want to use it themselves that their Facebook friends could ‘check them in’, or how to change that setting. But concerns like that are too easily dismissed because, in theory, each person has a choice. Personally I find this drip drip much more worrying than the Phorms of this world.

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