[Dave Birch] The excellent DEMOS report on privacy “UK Confidential” contains contributions from many of the people i regard as thought leaders in the field and has ideas aplenty. It was supported by BT “in the interests of furthering public debate”, which it certainly does. I’m curious about the extent to which the “tag line” on the report is true or not. It says “an open society depends on individuals rediscovering the social value of privacy”. Is it really for individuals? It seems to me that it is something that needs to be woven into the fabric of society — partly through the technological implementation of identity, the kind of thing that interests me greatly — because it’s a social good.

Anyway, in the introduction, Charlie Edwards and Catherine Fieschi say that “We lack the language to discuss privacy holistically. We use outdated frames of reference that are no longer adequate to discuss the contemporary landscape of privacy concerns or re-frame complex issues about data protection and vulnerability in other terms”. I couldn’t agree more — I’ve been writing a magazine article arguing, similarly, that both the government and its critics on identity management share this outdated frame of reference (which I’ve labelled “Orwellian”) — and there’s no doubt that it is a major impediment, a contributing factor to the privacy logjam we’re now stuck in, where privacy and security are seen as opposites that we have to balance in some way. I don’t want to dip into the “what is privacy” discussion here, except to note that it is important not to make the mistake of conflating a brief period of essentially urban anonymity with privacy and therefore make privacy something we can return to or get back in some way: Most people, throughout most of history, have had no privacy whatsoever.
The essential core of privacy in a modern context, I think, must be built around choice and consent (this is why I’m looking forward to our participation in a couple of Technology Strategy Board projects on Privacy & Consent later in the year). I tend to see these as important components of future consumer propositions and therefore viable if chosen carefully — there’s no point coming with great privacy plans that business will never implement. They call the privacy component of an exchange an “invisible transaction”, which is nice way of putting it. If companies can find privacy-enhancing processes that go with the grain of business, then surely they will promote them (much as they have begun to promote “green” elements of their operations).
In the conclusion Charlie and Catherine say that “our collective ignorance means that we get the privacy we deserve” but I’m not sure I’d be so negative. People are ignorant about lots of things, but they expect professionals (eg, us, I hope) to make good decisions for them. I’m happy to contribute to that debate.

Just to give you an idea of the report contents, I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing the essay summaries from the report here:

Privacy’s public death?

The social value of privacy

Catherine Fieschi

The received conception of privacy under which we operate is rooted in the language of rights, and perhaps more specifically in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European Convention on Human Rights and the UK’s corresponding 1998 Human Rights Act and other constitutional guarantees make it a ubiquitous right in most advanced industrial democracies. While we know that the concept of privacy varies from one culture to another, this variance raises some profound questions as to our understanding of privacy, its elasticity and the way in which it might evolve in the future.

Whose privacy is it anyway?

Zoe Williams

Individuals have never had so much privacy. Daunted by the surveillance possibilities of modern technology, we forget how many surveillance possibilities our nearest and dearest used to have just by opening their curtains. So we funnel essentially irrational anxieties into a wider fear for our privacy from the prying eyes of the world, and by a happy dovetailing, our celebrity ego ideals reflect those anxieties right back at us, at greater volume. Our irrational anxieties have no basis in reality at all.

Where everybody knows your name

Tom Ilube

A world rich in personal information brings with it risks. And this world of information is a reality, a necessary part of globalised business, international communication and interaction. The amount of personal information about us increases exponentially every year. Instead of being fearful, we need to understand how to prosper in this world. Appreciating promotion, through the technologies that spawn such a wealth of data, is as important as privacy protection.

Drunken students, beauty queens and pole dancing

Peter Bazalgette

The bulk of users employ their MySpace and Facebook entries for self-advertisement, social networking and the generally raw process of growing up. They are the first generation that can tell you precisely how many ‘friends’ they have. They are also the first generation whose sexual adventures, drug taking, immature opinions and personal photographs are shared electronically.

The public’s private lives

Being watched

Peter Bradwell and Niamh Gallagher

Shutting the door, drawing the curtains, disconnecting the phone, deleting the files and stashing the diaries; the realm of the private is at once comforting and essential. But the scent of the illicit or illegal is never too far away. In the connections between ‘closeness’ and affiliation there sit expectations about what we want, or are entitled, to know of others, and vice versa. The way we talk about privacy can tell us a lot about our social fabric, yet it is often seen as ‘merely’ a civil liberties problem, a predictable whine of the chattering classes or paranoid libertarians. We should understand privacy as being about control, context and choice. Across all three dimensions the privacy challenge is changing.

A place of greater safety? Information sharing and confidentiality

Perri 6, Chris Bellamy and Charles Raab

Information sharing across public services is seen as key to coordinating the efforts and support of government departments. But this poses particular problems for privacy, often phrased in the language of balance – between confidentiality and collaborative working. But these decisions over risk are not about balance or general rules; they involve judgement and choices about individual cases and the risks attached to each. Guidance at the moment concentrates on the risks of not sharing. But future government intervention needs to be based around training to develop the skills and capacities for these judgements to be made, rather than more guidance or legislation.

The case of electronic patient records: is the privacy debate a smokescreen?

Marlene Winfield

If the majority of us are ‘privacy pragmatists’, then we need to understand why the current phase of NHS reform, based around electronic medical information and better sharing of it, is happening, and what the benefits are. The NHS IT programme is centred on changing the relationship between health service and patient by putting the emphasis on patients’ informed choices, and allowing them to have a greater voice in the health system. There are compelling and necessary benefits to connected health records, from better-informed patients and staff, to better research into medical and health trends. The opposition, in particular from doctors, can be seen as a reaction against the empowering of patients in this system with a greater voice, and better health information.

How personal medical data can improve the public’s health

Robert Souhami

The opportunities for UK research to improve the health and lives of the population are now exceptional. But just at this moment of opportunity, changes in the laws concerning privacy, combined with confused interpretation and regulation of these laws and a conflicting and multilayered bureaucracy, have put such research at risk. As citizens we know we have responsibilities as well as rights.

Regulating our private lives in an open society

Sleepwalking into a surveillance society

Jonathan Bamford

The thirst for more information about individuals seems unquenchable but it would be unduly pessimistic to believe that data protection and privacy laws are at best anachronistic, and at worst completely useless. It is fair to say that data protection and privacy regulation has struggled to keep pace with the technological, economic and political changes that have driven the expansion in the breadth and depth of personal details held about individuals.

Towards global privacy standards

Peter Fleischer

Information and data now flows easily and instantly around the globe. But our data protection legislation does not match this reality. Instead, there is either no protection, or, where it exists, it is not compatible enough with information protection regimes in other countries or regions. Because of the complex and interconnected nature of the global information economy, we need to develop the patchwork of alternative approaches into a coordinated drive to develop global privacy standards, consistent with commercial realities, political needs and technological realities.

The naked machine: privacy and security in an age of terror

Jeffrey Rosen

When it comes to the protection of privacy, legal values tend to reflect and follow social norms, rather than the other way around. Perhaps those who hope to import a European understanding of privacy into the US, and vice versa, should focus on changing social understandings of privacy rather than on passing new laws. But can social understandings of privacy easily be changed to accommodate both honour and liberty? A society where citizens refuse to respect their own privacy is not one where privacy will be long respected; and the US experience suggests that citizens in an individualistic market democracy may perceive too many market rewards for exposure to respect their own privacy for long.

The culture of control

Simon Davies

The current interest in privacy stems from the broader concern over loss of human autonomy. The number of people who are restrained or disciplined by legal, administrative and judicial mechanisms each year is a thousand per cent greater than 20 years ago. Legislation regulating conduct in public has increased 15-fold in the same period. The requirement for ‘permission’ to initiate group activities has soared. It can now be argued successfully that individual freedom is no longer conditioned by what is expressly prohibited in law, but instead is circumscribed by what the law expressly permits. In this context privacy takes on a libertarian aspect and thus becomes the standard bearer for the general issue of freedoms.

The architecture of privacy: space, power and human rights

Markus Miessen and International Festival

This chapter looks at privacy as a socio-spatial concept. Like the boundaries between our home and the street, the space around us comes to reflect the priorities of privacy: whom we choose to let in to spaces and whom we choose to keep out. Through stipulations about minimum overlooking distance and the often mandatory half metre between pavement and front door, such considerations are in fact at the heart of the UK planning system. The way spaces are organised is not only a result of, but helps to shape, relationships between people and groups, and influences how people understand their identity, position vis-à-vis others, and culture of everyday life.

Regulating privacy

Gareth Crossman

In 2008 we are subject to levels of state and private sector intrusion and surveillance unimaginable ten years ago. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Surveillance techniques need to adapt to deal with modern criminality while data sharing can make life more convenient and improve access to public services. What has been missing in government policy in recent years is a sense of proportionality limiting privacy intrusion so that it is targeted and appropriate. This overarching principle can be applied across the range of privacy-relevant subjects. Citizens are dubious about the extent to which their personal details and images will be accessible through tools such as the National Identity Register, National DNA Database and CCTV cameras. A government that is willing to listen to the growing expressions of public concern about privacy intrusion will provide a crucial opportunity for progressive change and will help make privacy a meaningful concept once again.

Incidentally, I happened to be at DEMOS recently and I bought a spare copy of the report. So in now traditional fashion there’s a copy of the report signed by Charlie on my desk waiting to be sent to the first person to reply to this post with the name of the report contributor with the least odd surname. Also in the now traditional fashion, the competition is open to all except for employees and associates of Consult Hyperion and members of my immediate family. There are no cash alternatives and the prize must be won within a month. Oh, and no-one can win more than one of these blog competitions per year.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. Dave
    I agree completely with your discussion of security and privacy. The way I like to think about it is that traditional approaches treat privacy and security as a zero sum game, when in reality there is no need to compromise one in favour of the other. In fact, security can enhance privacy and vice versa.
    Also, with reference to the surnames of the authors, I would say that Williams is the least odd surname (at least according to this http://surname.sofeminine.co.uk/w/surnames/most-common-surnames-in-great-britain.html which ranks it as the fourth most common, with Davies at number six and this http://www.taliesin-arlein.net/names/search.php which ranks it at number 3)

  2. Thanks for highlighting this report. It looks like it contains a very interesting selection of views.
    As it will be easier to read in hard copy I’ll put in a bid for the competition. The least odd surname is of course “6” as it’s an even number.

  3. The answer I was looking for was “6”, so I declare “messy” the winner. It may be arbitrary and capricious, but it’s final 🙂
    Anyway, let me know a postal address, and the report will be on its way.
    P.S. And sorry FishNChipPapers, since your answer was more sensible than my question!

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