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Digital gangsters and privacy rights – is it all too late?

You have more to worry about Facebook, Google and the like collecting your data than any information any government holds on you. That was the view of Mark Zaid, US Attorney who spoke at UCL’s conference on “Privacy and Data: Law and Practice” about the guardians of information in our “post-truth” world.

He should know – many of his clients are spies and he brings lawsuits against the US President. His stark message was these large organisations – which capture so much information about all of us in our daily lives – are largely unregulated. You may sign up to their privacy policies now, but what happens in 50 years’ time if they decide that’s long enough and release all the information they hold on you? The UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture Media and Sports Committee have recently published their report describing Facebook and its executives as “digital gangsters” following their investigation into disinformation and fake news.

How is it that we have so many rules – from confidentiality clauses in contracts to GDPR – that control what information we can share, and yet fail to regulate the biggest data gatherers of them all? Mark Zaid referred to a book – published 50 years ago – called “Towards 2018” which predicted many of the technological advances we’ve seen and warned that privacy would be an issue…. Why didn’t we prepare and what should we do now?

For whistleblowers the issues of privacy and confidential information are constantly rubbing up against disclosures in the public interest. The #Metoo movement and the recent injunction sought by Philip Green against the Telegraph show our lines about what should and should not be private are fluid. There are real concerns if employers use Non-Disclosure Agreements to cover up wrongdoing when it comes to sexual harassment. But the answer is to consider when, not if, NDAs are used – both sides can benefit from keeping some matters confidential.

The direction of travel in many areas is away from privacy rights. Partners at BCL Solicitors talked of the erosion of financial privacy rights when it comes to detecting crime and money laundering. Individuals too should be wary – anyone who thinks that they can wipe their past will find the “right to be forgotten” is heavily circumscribed and can’t be used to hide past wrongdoing.

UCL provided a wide ranging and thought provoking course, which raised many questions about how we should regulate and protect information and in whose interests.

Blog by Liz Gardiner, Interim Director of Policy & Legal