A week is a long time in the world of data protection

A week is a long time in the world of data protection

Data protection: why does it matter?

For a start: can’t we think of a better word than ‘data’? In other words, a more apt term for all of those ones and zeros that countless computers, peppered around the globe, cobble together to create a picture of each of us?

‘Data’ sounds so cold and impersonal. I am not fond of it:

What data relating to me do they process?


This hoity-toity Latin word really makes it seem as though this sort of question has absolutely nothing to do with any of us.

Now, I am not suggesting that we invent a new word, but perhaps we all ought to be thinking less in terms of ‘data’ and more along the lines of  ‘what is known about me’ or, even more philosophically, 'who do people think I am’? 

That’s more like it. 

In a sense, data protection is increasingly about reputation management: your reputation with companies; your reputation with the government.

So far so good.

However, problems start to flourish with data processing when businesses or the government start to think that you are someone different to who you really are or when they know more about you than is reasonable. What rights do you have to manage your digital reputation?

Many people say, for example, that we should not be afraid to give up all of our personal data to whoever needs it. After all, if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear—to which my response is: we all have something to hide. Well I do. I don’t particular fancy somebody coming around to my place and installing a camera in my bathroom. I’m not ready for an Orwellian telescreen just yet.

Indeed, to what extent can we trust businesses and governments to get it right? Increasingly, they are outsourcing a lot of dull tasks to computers. Computers aren’t sentient—yet. Mistakes will be made.

One social media site, for example, thought that I was Guatemalan for weeks after I visited the country a few years ago. This is a company that, in the last financial year, spent over a billion dollars on buying servers and network infrastructure and building unfeasibly large data centres across the globe. And yet, it struggled to understand me: no, I don’t really need to know about a 2 for 1 burger deal in a fast food restaurant in Chichicastenango. I really don't.

That is why data protection matters. Our reputations exist in bytes on innumerable computers and mainframes around the world. Most of us want to make sure that the information on us is correct and that we know when it is collected and what p

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