Data Privacy in A Digital Age

Privacy has always been a crucial aspect of human existence. But as more data becomes digitized, and more information is shared online, data privacy is becoming more important.  Data privacy denotes how information should be managed based on its perceived importance. It isn’t just a business concern; individuals have a lot at stake when it comes to the privacy of their data. The more you are aware of it, the better you’ll be able to shield yourself from multiple risks. In this digital age, the concept of data privacy is mainly applied to critical personal information, also refereed to as personally identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI). This typically includes financial data, medical and health records, social security numbers, and even basic yet sensitive information like birthdates, full names, and addresses.

For a business, data privacy transcends the PII of its customers and employees. It also encompasses the information that helps it operate, whether it’s propriety research and development data or financial information that shows how money is spent within the company. Recent history has shown that when data that should remain private gets into questionable hands, bad things follow.

It’s a Data Driven Economy

User data is an extremely valuable asset in this information age. It not only helps organizations understand their customers, but also enables them to ‘track’ customers and target them with ‘relevant’ ads. Marketing is just one of the ways companies leverage user data to strengthen their position in the market and increase their revenues. There are other more harmful ways. In 2018, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called to testify before the United States Congress, following the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Questioning during the hearings unearthed several details of a data privacy crisis for companies like Facebook that are dependent on data manipulation and harvesting.

More and more user groups, regulators and non-profits have begun demanding for a legally enforceable ‘right to privacy’. Speaking at a privacy conference in Brussels, Apple CEO, Tim Cook, called for improved privacy laws. At a time when the data practices of industry titans like Facebook and Google are being put into question, Cook is pushing Apple in the opposite direction, by not only talking up data privacy, but also embracing new regulations. Cook has also criticized companies that base their business models on the harvesting of personal data for advertising, while highlighting that his company tires to collect as little of it as possible.

The Service Affordability Tradeoff

Many in the tech industry are disinclined to support privacy regulations due to its potential to hold back innovation.  Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s advertising-based model by pointing out that it enabled its services to “be affordable to everyone”. “Instead of charging users, we charge the advertisers”, he added. Google’s Senior VP for Global Affairs, Kent Walker, echoed the same sentiment by saying ads allow them to deliver search to users of all income levels across the globe for free. However, both executives also acknowledged that security and privacy has to be a principal consideration, even if it impacts profitability. Its impossible to ignore the fact that all this personal data can lead to interferences and intrusions with people’s private lives. This can have a damaging and distressing effect on individuals.

Data Privacy Should be a Basic Human Right

Though the US has relatively few regulations that govern the gathering and use of personal data, in several other places around the globe, data privacy is considered a basic human right. Within the European Union, the recently enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), sets stringent legal standards for the handling of personal data. While ‘privacy’ may sound like a nebulous concept, it’s not a new idea in human rights law. The right to privacy safeguards an individual’s dignity by protecting their personal information from public scrutiny. This right is typically protection by statutory law.

The UN’s human rights office inferred that governments should respect the right to privacy by regulating how private organizations – not just intelligence agencies and the police – treat personal data. Human rights courts have also acknowledged that the collection, use, storage, and sharing of personal data can balk privacy. Those actions should therefor be limited to what is unquestionably necessary and relative to a justifiable goal.

“All of us will have to think about the digital experiences we create to treat privacy as a human right”

– Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

The GDPR Is Charting the Way

The EU enacted GDPR will improve privacy and should propel other countries to enhance the protection of people’s personal information. The new regulation that became legally binding across the EU’s 28 member states on May 25, 2018, is one of the most comprehensive and strongest attempts globally to regulate the collection and use of personal data by both the government and the private sector. Despite the fact that the GDPR has prompted multiple other nations to strengthen their cyber laws, none offer residents the right to data privacy. Courts and regulators have to work attentively to ensure that corporations and governments don’t try to exploit ambiguities in data protection laws.

Several companies have begun exploring how they can enhance the protection of users’ data and play a role in the continuing conversation about privacy as a human right. Those that are yet to do so have to develop the necessary tools and processes needed to track the source of the data they collect, making sure that data collected for a specific purpose is not exploited for another. They will also have to develop new policies outlining how data is collected and used in a clear, concise language, not legalese.

Author: Gabriel Lando
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