By Gunnar Eigener

Data is a commodity. It is a digital blueprint of our lives that we leave behind wherever we go on the internet and in life. Many of us consider it to be of little interest. After all, what does it matter where or what we shop for? Who cares about the sites we search for via Google and what pages we like on Facebook? Well, it turns out that our governments and private companies do.

The recent apparent failure of TTIP is a hollow victory. Like a hydra, when one head is cut off, two more appear. The Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) have become the new focus of attention. TISA is particularly relevant to the issue of data. In the US, there are no comprehensive data protection rules, rather they are dealt with state by state and more as a way of treating the flow of data rather than individual privacy. Proposals in TISA would essentially remove the right to keep data in its country of origin. Lobbyist organisations, like the Coalition for Privacy and Free Trade, have for years been pushing for ‘interoperability’ between US and EU data protection laws. In essence, these organisation are encouraging TISA to strip away all existing data protection laws in order to access confidential and personally identifiable data. This should alarm us, especially when US firms, like Lockheed Martin, an arms firm, bid for NHS contracts. These are not the types of companies that should have access to such data.

The Draft Communications Data Bill, better known as the Snoopers’ Charter and introduced by then Home Secretary Theresa May, has since morphed into the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill. The basis of the the bill is to allow law enforcement to collect vast amounts of personal data. Part of the controversy that surrounds this is that Minsters sign off on the warrants, not individual judges who are able to weigh up the merits of such intrusive surveillance. There have not yet been any announcements as to how the data will be stored securely and by whom.


Photo: Jess Hurd

So why should this affect us? If we have nothing to hide then surely this shouldn’t be a problem for us as individuals or as a society? We are all accustomed to having Googled a product and then seeing Facebook ads offering the same product. This type of interconnection has been going on for sometime and is known as Remarketing/Retargeting. It essentially allows real-time bidding for advertising spots where advertisers are able to drop tracking cookies on a user as they browse the internet and then retarget them once they go into Facebook. This goes on everywhere since online advertising is worth around $170 billion a year (2015). But still, why should this affect us?

In 2002, the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created the Information Awareness Office (IAO). The stated purpose of the IAO was “to gather as much information as possible about everyone, in a centralised location, for easy perusal by the US government”. The aim was ‘total information awareness’. A Congressional investigation led to a stop of funding for the program in 2004. Amongst the issues raised was that the director of the IAO was Admiral John Poindexter, who had been convicted of lying to Congress over his part in the Iran-Contra Affair. Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 the power and scope of such surveillance projects, leading many to suspect that the IAO simply changed its name and was moved out of reach of Congress.

While such programs do in all likelihood exist, this isn’t the X-Files. We aren’t being catalogued and prepared for a complete takeover. Media sensationalism is pushing us towards the idea that a mysterious cabal is conducting global surveillance with the hopes of creating a one world government.

The problem is that we are revealing so much about ourselves. We have apps with information about how far we have jogged and where we jogged to. On Facebook we tag our locations, who we are with and what we are doing. Our holiday destinations, our purchases, our diets, our shopping habits, even our sexual interests. Data-mining extends beyond us too. Traffic, weather cycles, wildlife patterns, most aspects of life and behaviour on this planet can be recorded and catalogued. Without doubt, many of these datasets are very useful in being able to determine future patterns and can help many different organisations in many different ways. Yet one major issue exists: this data is for sale to anyone and when profit-driven companies, like BlackSky, and the military have access to such data, it becomes more unlikely that the human and privacy factor will be of the upmost importance.

The problem is that we are revealing so much about ourselves.

Military and law enforcement data collection, such as Predpol, are used to detect potential and future crime and terrorist hotspots. A UK System called MooD helps the Ministry of Defense on how to best buy equipment. Palantir, funded by the CIA, is used to identify both insider threats to corporations and predict insurgent attacks against US Marines. There shouldn’t be a problem with data being used for such purposes as they protect our societies and our economies. Where we should have a problem is Sesame Credit, a social credit scoring system in China that financially punishes individuals for posting anything perceived as anti-government. We should be very concerned that TISA will potentially open up the NHS to US firms who will use personal data to push a service or product rather than care for the health of an individual.

Data is personal but we are all too willing to share that data with our Facebook posts and our blogs. We all know that our Google history can provide a very detailed picture of our habits and most of the time, we don’t care. Data should be used out of necessity, not profit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.