Privacy cannot be an afterthought

Lib Dem MP Tom Brake calls for dialogue between government and internet companies prior to product deployment.

Tom Brake

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Topics Science & Tech

The major threat in my view posed by Google Street View was not necessarily the technology itself. Rather it was the fact that Google had been able to deploy technology which did have privacy implications without anyone in government noticing that Google was going to do this. If they had, it might have allowed for an opportunity for the matter to be discussed, debated and assessed for its privacy impact before Google actually rolled out the technology.

The privacy impact of Street View came to my attention when it became clear that individuals were being photographed without their permission at locations all round the country, with the details of their home also being on display and available for people to see. Google has since heard people’s privacy concerns and has put in place facilities to allow people to have images deleted from Street View and allowed them to be replaced with more neutral images. I do however have concerns about the speed with which action is taken to remove the offending images.

But the main point about all these types of technology – Google Street View, Google Latitude, software which devises means of displaying advertising which is targeted at individuals – is that they are being pushed, developed and marketed by big international companies before governments are able to consider whether there are any implications. The dialogue between government and the big technology companies has got to be enhanced to ensure that all of these issues around privacy are looked at in detail before the technology is put in to the public domain.

That does seem to a major problem. There is a lack of dialogue – there’s a lack of dialogue prior to implementation and there’s a lack of dialogue prior to the roll-out of the technology. And this is an issue also in relation to security considerations. For example, with technologies like Facebook or Street View, a dialogue is taking place between manufacturers and the government about the security implications of that technology after the technology has been implemented, and after potential risks have become current, because the technology is already widely deployed

The responsibility to protect privacy must lie with both a private company like Google and an external regulatory body. Facebook and others, for example, can’t deny they have a responsibility to protect and safeguard the identities of children, for instance, who are using their product. And Facebook needs to be active in protecting their young users from potential predatory adults. But at the same time if the companies are not willing to take responsibility for ensuring that there are high standards of data protection, that there are high standards of data security, then of course the government is the final body that can regulate these things and it should be willing to act.

What companies should definitely do is to make it extremely straightforward for people to opt in or out of having their information exchanged not just between companies but within single companies like Google. So I want to have a choice about whether ads are going to be displayed when I’m accessing websites. And I want to have a very clear way of deciding whether I do or don’t, that doesn’t require a very complicated process and hours and hours of working your way through settings in a particular application to find how you can or can’t do it.

In terms of privacy online more generally, what needs to be worked at much harder is making it very obvious to people when they are or are not opting to have their data made publicly available. Companies need to work much harder at making it easy for people to make their data public or not.

Tom Brake is Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington. This article is based on an interview by Tim Black.

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Topics Science & Tech

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