Digital Enslavement

Posted on November 18, 2010


Headlines do not come more dramatic than that, but is it just cheap attention grabbing?

I have just returned from meetings with MEP’s in the EU parliament and can confirm that there is a real concern over individual’s privacy, data integrity, compliance and protection of the innocent online. When reflecting on my earlier blog titled ‘Click through to Hell’, I hinted at the current state of affairs online.

The view is clear, too much data is being ‘harvested’ off the goodwill and trusting ignorance of a social audience caught up in the audience capture and retention techniques of commercial entities that pay lose lip service to marketing terms such as “Don’t be evil” (Google). When in fact there is evidence hand over fist that sadly what is practiced may not reflect the spirit of all that is preached.

In blunt terms individuals are being harvested for their digital data both persistent (identities and network) and transitive (opinions and behaviour). Data they will never be able to claw back even if they wanted to. Locked into environments that they have little opportunity to migrate off even if they wish to. Where in the corporate world business and regulators laud the requirement for standards and openness to avoid lock-in to systems, consumers are left floundering and alone.

We need to start somewhere, and with the echoes of the European Parliament in my head I would suggest reorientation priorities from structural issues like who owns the Internet and how we regulate traffic, issues that market forces will end up ironing out before any regulator, to doing what comes naturally to a parent and respectable citizens, protect our children.

Children and teenagers do not enjoy the same protections online that they do in the physical world; despite the terms and conditions of acceptance (See my blog ‘Click through to Hell’). T’s and C’s that are little more than a fig leaf of respectability which online social networking services hide behind.

Children and teenagers are laying down virtual shadows that could and in many cases have already started to haunt them for the rest of their lives; casting blight on fledgling careers before they have had a chance to show their potential. All because commercial entities believe a value exchange has occurred with terms and conditions permitting a retention and use of submitted data, data that will persist longer than we can ever imagine, and be used for purposes well beyond any original intent or consent.

Making data anonymous is also no argument for retention. There is wide evidence to demonstrate that data set’s that were once anonymous can be reattached to identities. Such a prospect no business can categorically say they are immune to, as no commercial entity knows what future shape they may be merged or acquired into, and with them their data.

I propose that:

1. Any individual should be able to request and have executed without question the deletion of part or all of their data up to the age of maturity say 18.

2. Online service must be able to demonstrate that they can show an auditable age classification of personal data where personal data is held persistent beyond a caching function.

3. Online service must be able to demonstrate a process for data cleansing, with clear certification of compliance within hard timescales.

I am not ignorant to the ramifications of such proposal:

· Online ID’s

· Global nature of online services

… amongst others.

We are still in the digital Wild West when it comes to dealing with such issues. For example little progress has been made on digital identities beyond a few vendor derivatives that remain largely proprietary and do not reflect the true shape of what is required. Regulators are not helping with a focus on single identities when it is clear that online we all require multiple identities (ie:work and domestic).

But as a parent and an advocate of personal privacy and data protection, we must start somewhere. If we cannot get a unilateral agreement on protecting our children then there is no hope for humanity.

In doing so we will lay a solid foundation for trust in our digital lives for the future.