Regulations to protect personal data don’t inspire much love. Companies frequently regard them as a nuisance, a needless expense, and a hindrance to innovation. Governments think the rules should apply to everyone but themselves. And ordinary people often act as if they don’t care whether their data is safeguarded at all.
But such regulations matter now more than ever. The world is increasingly defined by technological asymmetries; a huge gulf has opened up, with big corporations and powerful governments on one side and ordinary individuals on the other. Even in wealthy democratic societies, individual autonomy is at risk now that even simple choices, such as what news stories to read or what music to listen to, are dictated by algorithms that operate deep within software and devices—so deep that users are usually unaware of the extent to which data processing shapes their decisions and opportunities. Today, technology “is being used to control what we see, what we can do, and, ultimately, what we say,” the cryptographer and privacy specialist Bruce Schneier has written. “It makes us less safe. It makes us less free.”
Most people have yet to realize that truth. In the era of the Internet and mobile communications, people tend to focus more on the goods, services, and experiences that technology offers and less on the ways in which privacy is imperiled by software, code, and devices that have become an invisible but integral part of everyday life. Although many people want to have a sense of how data processing affects them, most aren’t interested in the details.
The trouble is that, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky, although you may not be interested in big data, big data is interested in you. Companies and governments are constantly finding new ways to gather and exploit more information about more people. Sometimes they have good intentions; sometimes they do not. I’ve learned this firsthand: as the data protection commissioner for Ireland, which is home to the European
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