We’ve been framing the debate between openness and privacy the wrong way.
Rather than positioning privacy and openness as opposing forces, the fact is they’re different sides of the same coin – and equally important. This might seem simple, but it might also be the key to moving things forward around this crucial debate.
Open data advocates often suggest that openness should be the default for all human knowledge. We should share, re-use and compare data freely and in doing so reap the benefits of innovation, cost savings and increased citizen participation — to name a just a few gains.
And although it might sound a little utopian, the promise is being realized in many corners of the world.
A study by Deloitte for the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills estimated the annual value of time saved to customers through Transport for London’s open data (e.g. access to real time travel information) at up to £58 million.
In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decided nearly three decades ago to release their data sets to the public. That decision resulted in a burst of innovation, including forecasts, mobile applications, websites, research and a multi-billion dollar weather industry. If NOAA stopped the flow of open data, weather.com and a host of weather applications would cease to exist.
But as we all know, even if we accept all the possible benefits of open data, concerns about privacy, especially personal information, still exist as a counter weight to the open data evangelists. People worry that the path of openness could lead to an Orwellian world where all our information is shared with everyone, permanently.
There is a way to turn the conversation from the face-value clash between openness and privacy to how they can be complementary forces. Gus Hosein, CEO of Privacy International, has explained that privacy is “the governing framework to control access to, collection and usage of information.” Basically, privacy laws enable knowledge and control of data about citizens and their surroundings.
Even if we accept all the possible benefits of open data, concerns about privacy, especially personal information, still exist as a counter weight to the open data evangelists.
This is strikingly similar to the argument that open data increases service delivery efficiency and personalization. Openness and privacy both share the same impulse: I want to be in control of my life, I want to know and choose whether a hospital or school is a good hospital or school and be in control of my choice of services.
Another strong thread in conversations around open data is that transparency should be proportionate to power. This makes sense on one level and seems simple enough: Politicians should be held accountable which means a heightened level of transparency.
But who is ‘powerful’, how do you define ‘power’ and who is in charge of defining this?
Politicians have chosen to run for public office and submit themselves to public scrutiny, but what about the CEO of a listed company, the leader of a charity, the anonymous owner of a Cayman-islands’ registered corporation? In practice, it is very difficult to apply the ‘transparency is proportionate to power’ rule outside democratic politics.
We need to stop making a binary distinction between freedom of information laws and data protection; between open data policies and privacy policies. We need one single policy framework that controls as well as encourages the use ‘open’ data.
The closest we get is with so-called PEPs (politically exposed persons) databases: Individuals who are the close family and kin, and close business associates of politicians. But even that defines power as derivative from political power, and not commercial, social or other forms of power.
And what about personal data? Should personal data ever be open?
Omidyar Network asked this question to 200 guests at a convention on openness and privacy last year. The audience was split down the middle: 50% thought personal data could never be open data. 50% thought that it should, and that foregoing the opportunity to release it would block the promise of economic gains, better services and other benefits. Open data experts, including the 1,000 who attended a recent meeting in Ottawa, ultimately disagree on this fundamental issue.
Herein lies the challenge. Many of us, including the general public, are uncomfortable with open personal data, even despite the gains it can bring.
Swedes have access to all and any tax records. Americans have access to public lists of federal politicians convicted of crimes, whereas Germans fought strenuously against such data collection. How does all this add up into a set of more or less coherent global norms so citizens know what to expect?
It’s easy to understand why advocates of open data and privacy rally to different ideological flags.
Yet, consider the fact that you want privacy for exactly the same reason you want openness. Because you want to know whether the information held by the government on a given problem, or indeed on you, is true and verifiable. Like openness and ‘open by default’, privacy is a principle that cuts across all forms of data release. It is fundamentally the same thing.
Privacy permits me to share selectively, and grant people access but with limitations.
We need to include privacy groups in those open data conversations. They need to be alongside us, thrashing out data revolution principles.
If we shift our thinking on open data and privacy from one of competing interests to one of a single inextricably linked, albeit complex, issue then we can find a path that enables us to cut a way through the jungle.
We need to include privacy groups in those open data conversations. They need to be alongside us, thrashing out data revolution principles. Issues like the International Open Data Charter – which are central to the new Sustainable Development Goals – need us to build consensus.
We need to agree whether and how open data can include personal information. And we need to stop making a binary distinction between freedom of information laws and data protection; between open data policies and privacy policies. We need one single policy framework that controls as well as encourages the use ‘open’ data.
This approach will not remove the tensions between the competing camps, but it might allow us to work toward common objectives that further each perspective’s work rather than leave us in a stalemate.
The discussions we now have are the lifeblood of both the openness and privacy movements –what, when and how should information be shared. A new frame of reference for the debate may shine a light on a constructive path forward.