For Safer Internet Day, I thought I’d bring a Mediterranean theme. As a classicist, I frequently switch between ancient and modern, applying time-tested principles to emerging technologies. Plato had it right on data protection: the price of not participating in public life is to be ruled by less able men.

I have heard it said that data protection is boring, but then so are traffic lights and seat belts. The price of progress is evolving safety and security to keep pace with the joy and convenience that new technologies bring. I won’t shame myself here by recounting the numerous times I’ve been at the sharp end of unsafe situations on the Internet. Equally, for once, I won’t patronise you by telling you how to stay safe. Even cutting the cables is not enough these days, although a USB condom can come in handy.

There appears to have been some uncertainty recently over whether digital crime counts as real crime. Perhaps a criminal doesn’t have to hold you up at the cashpoint or break into your property to rob you. This does not prevent you from being demonstrably out of pocket and often traumatised. In addition, the lack of proximity requires an entirely different approach to forensics and investigation. The previous level of crime remains and may even increase, it is often simply displaced.

In many ways, the digital world has become a victim of its own success. As interactions have increasingly become digital by default, the measures to deal with undesirable behaviour have struggled to scale at the same rate. The Office of the Information Commissioner (ICO) has had to deal with great expansion both in online activity and successive waves of regulation to support that activity. They were the subject of a recent consultation on data protection reforms, looking to substantially change their role. As with other examples, such as the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and Bracknell New Town, vastly expanding their remit can leave a once successful endeavour with a poor public image. The new Information Commissioner has already reminded us that “Privacy is a right not a privilege”. If we are to maintain any kind of autonomy, we must reject the idea that “privacy is dead”.

There is some tremendous work being done around digital privacy, in order to keep us all safe online. The international Computers Privacy and Data Protection conference brings together experts in technology, law and social sciences to share best practice from across the world. Thanks to the tireless efforts of both individuals and organisations, it is now usual to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessment and Privacy Impact Assessment prior to embarking on a major development project. This principle of Privacy by Design is essential for protecting the wellbeing of each of us in our own communities. In addition, organisations such as the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) provide simple, accessible guides to activities such as accessing Social Media safely.

If there’s anything we’ve learned in recent times, it’s self-reliance. Young people, in particular, have shown remarkable resilience in the face of disruptions to their education and personal lives. They will find their own solutions to the challenges they face. Our role is to provide the support and encouragement they need to navigate the unpredictability of life online. “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”

When I was last in Rome, I found myself at a loose end on Palm Sunday and dragged the family down to St Peter’s Square. Instead of his prepared sermon, Pope Francis suddenly called on the crowd to ‘look at yourself…’, “ask yourself who am I?”, “am I ready to express my joy…or do I stand back?” Apart from severely testing my simultaneous translation skills, this was a great reminder that we are individually and severally responsible for building a strong society.

So, if you’re looking for someone to take responsibility for keeping the people you love safe online, fire up Zoom, click on ‘settings’ and ‘video’ and they will be looking right back at you.

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