Privacy and open data: Democracy the common denominator 

I attended an interesting business lunch last week on privacy, innovation and open data at the Sydney offices of legal firm Gilbert and Tobin, hosted by president of the International Association of Privacy Professionals ANZ, Emma Hossack.

Our discussion spanned a range of complex factors like varying generational attitudes to privacy, balancing the seemingly opposing forces of privacy laws and the open government and open data movements. We also discussed the increasing ability of data analysts to gain deep insights from supposedly aggregated and ‘anonymised’ or ‘de-identified’ data. The room was full of business and legal leaders, many with a focus on information privacy.

My angle, as ever, was how to progress the open data agenda, creating value for communities and business.

NSW Privacy Commissioner Dr Elizabeth Coombs made the excellent point that far from being in tension or opposition, open data and information privacy are in fact consistent and connected. The common denominator is democracy.

A democratic government must strive to become as transparent as it can be, for the real benefit of its citizens. An open government enables citizens to participate in their own government by giving them the information they need to understand their society, evaluate their government and make better choices. It is also the role of government to protect the freedom of citizens – the fundamental rights we all have – to make choices and live our lives without undue interference or scrutiny. This is why ‘open by default’ and the protection of personal privacy are both founding principles for open data.

But attitudes to privacy vary enormously. It is obvious our children have attitudes towards personal privacy, to the preservation of a private persona, and more generally to the idea of ‘possessions’, that differ greatly to our own.

Equally, we are all different, we all care about privacy to differing degrees and for different reasons.  Perhaps it depends on just how loose that bucks night was and whether the pictures ended up on Facebook. I blogged previously about the case of Google and Mario Gonzalez, a Spanish gentleman who asserted his right to have a 16-year-old social security infraction forgotten – by the internet, and by all of us.

I argue for common sense and the ‘right to be forgotten’. But there is a counter argument, one that I have much sympathy with: if we don’t fight for transparency and develop a level of tolerance for the personal privacy issues that are inevitable in an information-hungry, Internet-powered society, we will forfeit the real prize.

How far can we go before we have to question how democratic our society really is?

I have a set of ten golden rules for government open data initiatives. None is more important than being sure that open data reflects what you stand for. If open data, and more broadly openness and transparency, reflect what your government believes in, it is far easier to balance considerations like openness, commercial gain, privacy, disclosure risk and culture. It will be easier to write the business case.

If it doesn’t reflect what you stand for, don’t start.

Neil Makepeace
Chief Executive Officer