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Whose Data Is It, Anyway? Part 1 of a Continuing Series about Data Governance in the Public Sector and Commercial Enterprise

Originally published August 31, 2011

If you’ve done nothing wrong/ You’ve got nothing to fear.

Everyone has their own number/In the system that we operate under.

To the whole project, it's brand new/ Conceived solely to protect you.

We're moving to a situation/Where your lives exist as information.
 
-Pet Shop Boys, “Integral,” 2007

A world without government is a pretty horrible prospect. In such a world, or what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) called a "state of nature,” everyone would be at war in a struggle to survive. Life would be "nasty, brutal and short." To avoid such an environment, we prefer to hand over some of our natural rights to a government. We are willing to give up some of our freedom to receive protection. This is the purpose of government. Philosophers such as Hobbes and John Locke (1632-1704) have argued that creating a state is not a top-down exercise. A society is the result of a social contract between citizens. We accept the laws and customs of the country in which we live. We pay taxes and therefore receive protection, infrastructure and social benefits.

Trust

In the end, with all the checks and balances we have built in over the centuries, government as a system is based on trust. It has to be because it is too complex to fully control or even grasp. If we don’t trust the system in which we live, we cannot trust anything anymore, simply because all people and institutions fall under the laws of their governments. If the system cannot be trusted, nothing within it can be trusted either. If the system cannot be trusted to do the right thing, it can only be assumed it will take out every element within the system that challenges the system. This would be a totalitarian state.
 
Yet, perhaps sometimes we trust the system a bit too much, particularly in situations where government has trouble keeping up with new developments such as technology advancements.
 
One example of a law having trouble keeping up with technology is the law against using mobile phones while driving. In many countries this is not restricted to actually talking on the phone  –simply holding a phone in your hand while driving is forbidden. However, you are allowed to hold a navigation system or MP3 player in your hand. Herein is the confusion. For instance, an iTouch is difficult to distinguish from an iPhone. And what if the phone function of an iPhone is switched off and it is being used only as a navigation device or as an MP3 player?
 
We believe government will do the right thing, though. We expect the government to look after our best interests. After all, isn’t that what government is supposed to do? Things will balance out eventually, we hope.

Big Brother is Watching You

Another area in which technology is moving faster than society’s measures is data governance. The volume of data that is tracked about people on a daily basis is astonishing. On an average trip, your smartphone contains all the places you have been. You have been monitored by various surveillance cameras,1 such as at a stoplight or at the gas station. Most of your purchases are electronic.  Some public transportation outlets no longer accept cash, and in some countries you can’t even buy a train ticket – you have to use a chip card that is connected to your identity. Even parking fare creates a digital trace. Instead of simply buying a parking ticket, you need to enter your license plate number in the machine so that police can scan your license plate to see if you have paid. By the way, the purpose of your trip can be found online in your Google calendar, and you may have had email conversations about your trip. You can even be followed online through the data your navigation system sends to the server.
 
You may notice that not all of these examples include data collection by the authorities, such as your email, calendar and smartphone communication. However, police are always allowed to access data and do so routinely. In the case of WikiLeaks, for instance, the authorities requested data from Twitter. Police can also ask for email traffic, phone records and all other electronic trails. Everything.
 
The more centralized the collected data, the easier it is to query. Of course, there are laws and rules about what data can be used for what purposes; but in practice this becomes a slippery slope. There is always function creep. Function creep means that the ways data is being used are being stretched and at some point are way beyond the purposes for which the data was collected. IT “best practices” make function creep an easily occurring phenomenon.
 
For instance, it is good practice to always store data at the lowest granular level. Even if you only need aggregated and anonymized data, it is better to store all atomic data in case different aggregations are needed later. An important architecture principle dictates that data models should be application-neutral, meaning they can be used for multiple purposes. In the Internet age, it is common to store as much data as possible in a single database to be accessed and used by various applications. In fact, reuse is a stated principle in the IT strategy of many authorities – re-use within the authority, between authorities and even between countries. Also, it turns out that privacy and security are not always the primary concerns. Ease of use and enabling the government tasks at hand are often the primary objectives.
 
This is concerning in multiple ways. If there are no natural barriers to query data, such as the effort or cost to access to certain databases, the reasons to indeed look up that data become more common as well. For instance, DNA is extracted from convicted criminals to test against old cases. Then perhaps – unrelated – DNA is extracted from newborns to test for various diseases. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to combine both processes to a new and “efficient” single process. Ethically unlikely today? Ethics and morals change over time, and sometimes much faster that one could imagine. Think of all the measures taken after 9/11.
 
Furthermore, it is very human to mix up all kinds of causality issues. For instance, if burglars often wear black clothes, should we program the cameras in the street to keep an eye on everyone wearing black clothes? Ridiculous example? What about checking on young people driving expensive cars? This is a practice today in some places. Function creep simply happens. For instance, it is easy to quickly check everyone in the vicinity of a crime, based on their mobile phone location. Often, authorities simply send text messages asking assistance from witnesses. But if that data remains stored, it can easily be used to check if people repeatedly are in the neighborhood of crime scenes. Taxi drivers, the concierge of a hotel in a bad neighborhood, or perhaps family members of criminals become suspect quite soon. In general, without controls, it will become a routine operation to check everyone and everything.
 
Finally, we need to realize that although government’s goal is to protect its citizens, it becomes an organism in its own right, with a will to sustain and survive. Not all decisions that authorities make are in the best interest of the people. Sometimes they are in the best interest of government itself. Data will also be used to monitor threats to government, and public transparency – allowing citizens to access data – has its limits.
 
This article is the first in a series of three. In the next article I will include a real-life case study describing how a police force used collected TomTom satnav data in order to plan speed traps. Ethical or not?

End Notes:

  1. Monitored by whom actually? Police? Private security firm? For what purposes? And optimized to track what behavior exactly?

 

  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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