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Expert Comment: Draft Communications Data Bill back on the political agenda.

Mr David Lundie Thursday 30 May 2013

Dr David Lundie, Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope, on the re-emergence of the Draft Communications Data Bill.

Recent moves by Home Secretary Theresa May to revive the Draft Communications Data Bill, which would compel communications service providers such as mobile phone companies, broadband providers and websites to collect and retain additional information about their users’ online activities, have courted controversy. The Independent has cited Security Service sources suggesting that the Bill would not help prevent attacks such as recently occurred in Woolwich[i]. The proposed legislation would create arrangements to filter, interrogate and match data from a range of different sources, and while it would not give government access to the content of email and Voice-over-IP messages, the location, frequency and recipients of all messages would be a matter of record. Additionally, by the very act of storing so much private information, the risks of it falling into the wrong hands increases.

My own research with the Cornell privacy ethics group draws attention to a range of concerns associated with such privacy threats. In particular, the lack of awareness which most people have of threats to their privacy, and the unequal power relations when private information can be aggregated in this way emerge as key ethical issues in the literature[ii]. As people become used to disclosure as a condition of participating in the online world, over time, they can be expected to over-disclose information[iii]. The reason for this, our experimental work suggests, is that privacy exchanges are highly irrational – we don’t know the value of our private information.

In experimental conditions, students were willing to disclose sensitive private information with their peers for around $10.50 (£7), but this value was insensitive to the scope (between 3-23 people) or probability (1/20 or 1/1 chance) of disclosure. The difference between willingness to accept payment for their information and willingness to pay to keep it private was also very large, an established measure of irrational decision making[iv]. Our ongoing work begins to suggest the cognitive strategies people use in thinking about privacy – one of the dominant strategies seems to be to imagine a trade-off of ‘harm’ which could be caused by their private information becoming public[v].

These trade-offs, however, become increasingly unequal as governments and large data management companies begin to combine data from your mobile phone location, e-mail recipients, supermarket purchases, utility bills, and myriad other sources to produce an increasingly fine-grained picture. This can even, we argue, constitute a threat to the basic freedom to make decisions in our day-to-day lives[vi].

[ii] Schrader, DE & Lundie D (forthcoming) Academic conversation on the ethics of privacy in new communications technologies: a systematic literature review – currently under review

[iii] Cohen, JE (forthcoming) Irrational Privacy? Journal of Telecommunications & High Tech Law, 10

[iv] Kahneman, D (2003) A Perspective on Judgment and Choice: mapping bounded reality, American Psychologist, 58.9 697-720

[v] Schrader, DE & Lundie, D (2012) The value of privacy and private information-sharing in online communications, Association of Moral Education Annual Conference, San Antonio, TX

[vi] Wicker, SB & Schrader, DE (2010) Privacy-Aware Design Principles for Information Networks, Proceedings of the IEEE, 99.2 330-350

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