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Data and the common man

  • 02/06/2011
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  • Posted by EuroSTAR

Google’s Eric Schmidt caused a hoo-ha recently when he suggested that issues surrounding user privacy are a greater obsession with ‘the elites’ than they are for ‘the common man’.

Life doesn’t always go the way of the ‘elites’, of course, and in fact certain stratum have been having a tough old time of it if we consider the vexed issue of super injunctions. In this instance, the moneyed elite stood by as social networks ran a 21st century snowplough through the careful construct of a decidedly 20th century law.

Much mockery all round and a general lack of sympathy that leads us to another of Mr Schmidt’s bon mots. In 2009, he echoed the sentiments of many of us – ‘the common man’ then – when he said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Few of us have patience with attempts to cover up misbehaviour and each of us is confident that we can reach our own conclusions as to whether off-the-pitch dalliances deserve opprobrium or a shrug of the shoulders. Issues of privacy become far less clear-cut however once we move beyond personal codes of morality and further into the opaque practices of the corporate world. Do we care what happens to the data that we, as users, generate? Is Schmidt right to suggest that the majority care more for user experience than what happens in the backroom?

Perhaps at first glance we don’t. But we will care a very great deal if it begins to impact on our lives, if it leads to ID theft let’s say, because first glance doesn’t begin to reveal the potential threat posed by the trails of data held about each of us over a vast number of depositories.

Where and how personal data is held and how it is employed is far from clear-cut and in truth very few of those high street names we trust and agencies we deal with have nailed how to comprehensively secure personally identifiable records.

Get under the skin of most large-scale companies and it becomes clear that the fast-evolving systems in place that should govern how data is used – in testing and development projects for example – are too nebulous. No clear ‘ownership’, no iron-cast controls and too many instances where sensitive data can be compromised.

The thing about Eric Schmidt is that he ‘gives good quote’ but neat summaries rarely get to the heart of any dense subject and as an industry, too few are getting to grips with this brave new world of data propagation and the protection of ‘the (naïve) common man’.

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