This year’s Oxford London Lecture set out with frightening clarity the scale on which our data is monitored and shared.


By Helen Massy-Beresford

Attendees reaching for their smartphones after the fourth Oxford London Lecture did so with a little more thought than usual. Dr Ian Brown’s talk, Keeping Our Secrets: Shaping Internet Technologies for the Public Good, set out with frightening clarity the scale on which our data is monitored and shared — from photos on social media to locations on our smartphones, health statistics in fitness apps to shopping preferences on websites — as well as the market and regulatory mechanisms that allow governments and companies to get away with it.

Certainly, the data revolution has serious consequences for our society, but Brown — who is Associate Director of Oxford University's Cyber Security Centre and Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute — also sounded a note of optimism as he spoke about the technological advances that could help limit the flow of information without removing the positive impact the internet has on our lives.

A lively panel debate after the March 18th lecture highlighted the other ingredients needed to shape a safer future for our data: public awareness of the scale of the problem. Brown recounted the breakneck speed with which the internet has been woven into the fabric of our everyday lives and painted a picture of a near-future in which those threads will be virtually invisible: futuristic technologies like Google Glass will become mainstream in the coming years, joined by the likes of biometric headphones and false teeth that measure the wearer’s activity. “Computers will disappear into the environment,” he explained. “They’ll be everywhere without you noticing them.”

If the public is already struggling to keep up – Brown pointed out it would take the average internet user 20 hours a year to actually read all the privacy policies accepted without a second thought – the prospect of these innovations on the horizon highlights the urgent need for action. 

But the situation is by no means hopeless, Brown said. Companies could adapt their data policies, collecting only the data they really need to provide customers with a service or product; governments could stop routinely storing data on their citizens; organisations could take better care of people’s data, decentralizing it once it has been collected and encrypting it to better protect it from hackers. New technologies mean data could still be used to create targeted advertising — but anonymously, leaving the information in the hands of those it belongs to. 

But what’s in it for the companies? When it is easy and cheap to store data about their customers, that may one day make them money, why would they change their ways? 

This is where public awareness comes in. In the panel discussion that followed Brown’s lecture, David Davis MP, the former Shadow Home Secretary who resigned his seat in 2008 to run a campaign drawing attention to the erosion of civil liberties, noted that Britain was the only country to take the recent government surveillance revelations “with complete sang-froid.” That has to change, if companies and government organisations are to be persuaded to take a more responsible approach to privacy. Davis raised the interesting prospect of companies in future competing on the responsibility of their approach to privacy and data protection.  Vodafone’s Global Privacy Officer Stephen Deadman insisted there was appetite among technology companies for a solution to the privacy quandary. Indeed, “privacy” featured among the top five themes most tweeted about at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. “An astonishing thing for a trade fair,” as Deadman explained.

Wrapping up the evening, the panel, including Brown, was asked what single intervention would make the biggest difference to privacy. Answers ranged from giving consumers more control over their data to better redress when that data is misused. Nick Hopkins, Investigations Editor at the Guardian, which catapulted the issue of privacy into the spotlight when it revealed the scale of government monitoring of US citizens, had a more radical suggestion, though. “I would like to see a re-emergence of the art of face-to-face conversation,” he suggested. How novel.

Image by Jorge Quinteros under Creative Commons license