January 28 is Data Protection Day, commemorating the day when the Council of Europe Convention 108 (one of the longest-standing and most widely ratified privacy agreements in the world) was opened for signature in 1981.
Here are three stories of how data stored or shared can have unwanted consequences, even though it may at first (in times of peace and security, or from the perspective of a social media tech company) seem to not bare a risk for human life:
- Heather Burns tells the story of Rene Carmille who, as the person in charge for the French census in the 1930s, helped protect those persecuted by the Nazi occupiers by disabling the storage of people’s religion on their punch cards (they paid for this “ethical hacking” with their lives).
- Hans de Zwart links the attempt by the Dutch resistance to destroy the Amsterdam municipal register’s data (to protect people from their data being used for persecution by the Nazi-German occupiers) to the need to question the data hunger of our modern government and corporations: “During World War II, we did have something to hide – The Godwin lecture: Which lessons about privacy can we learn in the present day from the attack on Amsterdam’s municipal register in 1943?”.
- Nathan Ruser points out how Strava’s latest feature of a global work-out heatmap reveals patterns that would likely be better kept secret: “It looks very pretty, but not amazing for Op-Sec. US Bases are clearly identifiable and mappable” (more screenshots)
The important lesson from stories like these: Every single piece of data stored may eventually pose a risk to somebody—from census information to the GPS track of a smart watch. This is why principles like “Privacy by Design” and data minimisation are so important.
Every public body, organisation and tech/design professional takes responsibility for the data they process. And most importantly: the “nothing to hide” argument is short-sighted; personal data is always critical, to the individual and to our societies. We must never play with these values unreflected!