Data privacy: Should we treat data handling the same way we do our own health?

Increasingly digital breadcrumbs are making it possible for others to track our every move. To illustrate what is at stake here, we need to travel back in time. In the pre-computer era, the ability to remain incognito made for great drama in black and white movies. It also opened the door to the perfect crime, without much risk that the perpetrator  would get caught. Yet, when it comes to crime, invading peoples’ privacy could be justified, some argue, for the sake of the greater good and to preserve a stable society.

But now anybody can become the object of intense online and digital scrutiny, regardless of whether they are guilty of some nefarious crime or not.  And there is distinct possibility that digital natives may, in the not so distant future, take for granted that their every move and decision is being traced without any objection.

It is not clear which is more worrying: that future generations might not even question that they are under constant digital scrutiny. Or that it is our generation that is allowing technology to further develop without the safety nets that could secure our privacy now and for the future; this could leave the next generation without any hope of the privacy we once took for granted.

Health offers an insightful comparison.  It may appear paradoxical, but our society appears much more concerned about preserving our physical health than the health of our digital anonymity. Indeed, new drugs are subjected—rightly so—to a very intense regulatory process before being approved. But new technology and the way inherent data is handled is nowhere near as closely scrutinised. It simply creeps up on us, unchecked.

Despite protests from regulators that existing data privacy laws are sufficient, greater regulatory oversight would invariably impact the way data collection is operated. Take the case of data used for research, for example. Experience has shown that even in countries where transparency is highly valued, such as Denmark, there have been deficiencies in getting consent for the use of sensitive personal health data in research, which recently created uproar. By contrast, the current EU regulatory debate surrounding the new Data Protection Directive has the research community up in arms, for fear that too much data regulation would greatly disrupt the course of research.

As for our digital crumbs, it has therefore become urgent to consider how best this data may be managed, at the dawn of the Internet of Things.  Striking the right balance between finding applications with societal relevance and preserving people’s privacy remains a perilous exercise.

Do you believe digital natives are unlikely to be as concerned about their privacy?

Should we  allow technology to further develop without implementing the necessary privacy safety nets?

Original article published on EuroScientist.com.

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