One of the dangers of working in Data Protection is the risk of becoming a pedant. Precision matters; court cases have turned on the meaning of individual words like ‘likely’ and ‘distress’. The legislation is a maze of definitions and concepts that the competent practitioner needs to get to grips with. Lazy thinking can be revealed by an inability to get the details right, so it’s possible to become obsessed with the detail. Even the BCS Data Protection exam has a question which requires you to list the elements of the definition of consent in the right order. It’s easy to lapse into pedantry, to point out every wrongly quoted article, every jumbled phrase.
Nevertheless, getting a simple thing right is often important. GDPR does not cover ‘personal identifiable information’; it covers ‘personal data’ and the definition of the two is not the same. A person who talks about PII in the context of European Data Protection is starting in the wrong place (the US), and can make mistakes as a result. Another error that seems to be creeping in all over the place is more profound, and risks entrenching one of the biggest misconceptions about how data protection works, a misconception many of us have spent years trying to break down.
The problem is the phrase ‘data privacy’.
I see it everywhere – on LinkedIn naturally, in news coverage of the sector, and predictably, the ICO has fallen for it. They describe themselves as “The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals.” Look at the Data Privacy Advisory Service, who summarise their services as “At DPAS we help organisations safeguard the fundamental human right to have data kept private by putting in place the best possible protection to keep it secure. This is delivered in line with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and The Data Protection Act 2018.”
The idea is nonsense. It doesn’t exist. There is no right to data privacy – there is certainly no fundamental right ‘to have data kept private’. This isn’t a snide dig at someone quoting the wrong article. The concept of ‘data privacy’ is a complete misunderstanding of what Data Protection is for, and everyone who promotes it is actively thwarting the efforts of the rest of us to implement data protection in a practical way.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights says: ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence“. This right is not absolute; it can be interfered with (only when necessary) in the interests of “national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others“. The right is not just about data – it certainly can be, as is evidenced by cases where celebrities and others use the privacy right to prevent the use of images that breach their right to privacy. But the right to privacy doesn’t have to be about data at all – you can breach a person’s right to privacy by simply observing them, by being in a place where they expect privacy, or by denying them the opportunity to do something privately. Data doesn’t have to come into it.
Clearly, if you did a Venn diagram, there would be circumstances where privacy and data protection overlap. By following the Data Protection principles when you handle a person’s private correspondence for example, you probably also do what’s necessary to protect their privacy. The same is true for confidentiality – not all confidential data is personal data, but a decent stab at the principles will probably respect both. There is, however, a significant portion of the Venn diagram where Data Protection and Privacy do not meet, and the DP part of that is important.
The notion of ‘Data Privacy’ obscures two vital elements of Data Protection. First, data protection is not only about private data. It is covers all personal data, private, secret, and public. For years, I have been banging my head against the brick wall of ‘it’s not personal data, it’s in the public domain’. Trying to explain to people that data like photographs, email addresses and other publicly available data is still personal data, just available and easier to use than some other data has long been a difficulty. There was a chink of light in Article 14 of the GDPR which clearly states that a person should be informed even when their data is accessed from ‘publicly accessible sources’. This explicit recognition that public data is still personal data is very helpful, but the notion that ‘data protection’ and ‘data privacy’ are interchangeable muddies the waters again.
Second, in related news, GDPR is not about keeping data private; it is about ensuring that personal data processing is properly regulated. For years, Data Protection has been plagued by the padlock. The Information Commissioner used it as a logo (‘but the padlock is unlocked’ is a defence that umpteen different ICO folk have used when I complained about it), and when I did a Google image search for ‘Data Protection’ today, this is the top set of results:
The problem with the Data Protection Padlock is that it presents the legislation as something that locks data up, keeps it away from people. This understanding of data protection leads directly to the belief that disclosure of personal data is inherently problematic and exceptional, and that belief is toxic. I’m not persuaded that Victoria Climbie or Peter Connelly died solely because data about them wasn’t shared, but the pervasive fear of data sharing didn’t help. The GDPR says that ‘the protection of natural persons in relation to the processing of personal data is a fundamental right‘. The word ‘privacy‘ isn’t mentioned anywhere beyond a reference in a footnote to the ePrivacy Directive, and the processing of personal data is firmly put in the context of operating the EU’s internal market: “This regulation is intended to contribute to the accomplishment of an area of freedom, security and justice, and of an economic union“.
You can’t achieve the economic union by locking all the data away, by keeping it private. To characterise data protection law as being about ‘data privacy’ is to misrepresent its purpose completely. European Data Protection is a compromise – trade is underpinned by the use, even the exploitation of personal data, but people have rights, they have control over their data in some (but not all) circumstances, and the legislation built on foundations of transparency and fairness, not privacy. Arguably, the GDPR tries to even up the power imbalance in some circumstances, but it is not designed to lock up data and keep it private.
Of course, some people might be using ‘privacy’ as a synonym for ‘secure’ – the DPAS statement above seems to elide the two. Only a fool would want to play down the importance of security in the context of using any personal data, but the reduction of Data Protection solely to security is as destructive to a proper understanding of it as the privacy / protection mess. We’ve managed to drag Data Protection out of the IT department, and we need to stamp on this idea that security is the exemplar of good DP practice. Your data can be private and secure, but kept for no good reason, for too long, in an inaccurate state, and there could be too much of it.
Some personal data is private and should remain so. In many situations, the processing of personal data without an eye on people’s legitimate expectations of privacy, especially when monitoring, watching or listening to them, is likely to be unfair and so unlawful. There is a strong link between Data Protection and Privacy, and any attempt to divorce them would be stupid. But the use of ‘data privacy’ as a synonym for data protection is misleading and dangerous – it perpetuates a fundamental misreading of what the legislation is for, and makes the lives of everyone trying to make GDPR work effectively a thousands times harder. It’s time to take this nonsense, lock it up and throw away the key.