Data for sale, one (previously) careful owner

The dystopian future of corporation-governments is born here and now – in the dull-as-dishwater sale of official information.

Data – boring. Tax – boringer. If you try to read this story in today’s Guardian then, like me, you’ll probably have to stop about halfway down – because life (and Easter weekends) are just too short to spend worrying about the dull cogs of life.

But the sale of HMRC data to the private sector, however ‘anonymous’ and partial, threatens to breach the vital barrier between private enterprise and public service – two fundamentally different ideas that are too often confused in the fog of commerce and modern law-making.

Edward Snowden has done his bit, revealing just how willing governments are to bend the law to spy on as many citizens as possible, whether or not they’re suspected of being terrorists. And we all know just how desperate Google and co are to gather your behaviour data to sell you stuff.

The HMRC’s data sharing will inevitably become the start of a disastrous mistake

But while the two great domains of public and private data remain distinct, the big bad beastie of all-pervasive information surveillance remains firmly in the realms of science fiction – caged in the haunting visions drawn by Orwell’s 1984, or the vaguely ridiculous but jarring predictions of Minority Report.

New normal

There’s an almost holy separation between public and private data, but there’s no western precedent to illustrate the fundamental importance of keeping it intact.

Digital data are relatively new in the broad sweep of human history, but ubiquitous in our daily lives and becoming crucial in much of what we do at work and play.

Just think how slow and cumbersome life would be without your smartphone, and all those integrated apps that synchronise location with contacts and all the messages that flow back and forth.

The scraps of our lives should never be assembled in one whole by anyone

An integration that relies on trust, on the wilful donation of information like jigsaw pieces to a gaggle of companies who might work together occasionally, but not so much that they can complete the picture and pose a tangible risk to our privacy.

The concept of total privacy is already long gone, as companies feed on the cookies we drop around the internet, and draw ‘patterns of life’ from all kinds of activity that can be traced back.

Dangerous beginnings

But the scraps of our lives recorded by public bodies and companies should never be assembled in one whole by anyone.

Like snippets of a conversation overheard in a bar, they will inevitably fall onto the ears of the world and give clues as to who we are, but we should not be followed back along our streets, into our homes and let our every personal action be tracked, recorded and sold on the open market.

The biggest firms are already borderless, skipping through jurisdictions almost at will

Granted, HMRC’s moves in this field are reportedly limited so far, but crazy as they are, may not be the first. Similar ‘anonymised’ data sharing with the private sector was planned for medical records, but has been put on hold over concerns that companies might be able to identify people by piecing together the fragments.

If continued, the HMRC’s data sharing will inevitably become the start of a disastrous and undoable mistake that destroys any respect for the individual in favour of financial gain for anyone with a stake big enough to buy in.

Forgotten duty

Despite the lack of precedents, it’s not as if warning signs are absent on thrusting states and the commercial world into an ever tighter embrace. State support for the financial sector has become essential to prop up ailing economies, but the incentive structures don’t exactly bode well for future state stability.

If you were guaranteed a bail-out for every time you lost big, would you take fewer risks with your money or more?

And in the end, who will benefit most from states selling personal data to commercial operations? The biggest firms are already borderless, skipping through jurisdictions almost at will to pay less tax, exploit currency fluctuations and evade unwanted restrictions on what they can and can’t do.

These consequences are already obvious, but our government risks neglecting its primary duty by flogging off information gathered to protect and further the interests of its people.

The motives behind public and private are fundamentally different. They should be recognised and respected as such, unless we really do want to sell our souls to the highest bidders.

© Matthew Bell 2014

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