Data gathering requires corporate conscience

I'm not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, unless of course John Kennedy is involved. Most so-called conspiracies seem to me to be simple incompetence at work.

I’m not one to subscribe to conspiracy theories, unless of course John Kennedy is involved. Most so-called conspiracies seem to me to be simple incompetence at work.

People either underestimate the impact their decisions will have, or are caught up in a larger movement in which they feel they have no control, and so simply go with the flow.

There’s no secret cabal, no shadowy group of would-be overlords. Just simple stupidity. I met a fair number of crackpots during my time as Y2K reporter — people would email me with the most outlandish suggestions for the cause of the crisis.

One chap went so far as to suggest it was all a government-sponsored conspiracy that would see the end of the world being brought about in 2001 and the remnants of the human population being ruled over by black-helicopter flying suits who would demand we obey their every whim and fancy. I wonder how he’s getting on.

But it becomes harder and harder to cope with some of the stories I see developing both locally and internationally.

We’re at the edge, I feel, of a true information age. Let’s drop this whole “knowledge” thing — it’s information, data we’re talking about. Knowledge is what you do with the information after you get it — and I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But the amount of information being gathered and stored around the world is growing exponentially.

Petabytes will be small potatoes ten years from now when every action, every interaction is captured along with every transaction. Currently, however, we’re just at the beginning and the decisions we make in the next two or three years will affect us all for a long time to come.

Should we favour the individual’s privacy over the benefits of data sharing? That’s had disastrous ramifications for the health Inquiry into Gisborne’s smear programme — the Inquiry has had to threaten to issue subpoenas to produce the records it wants. Should we instead allow agencies to gather up our records and pass them around as they see fit? I find that just as disturbing a trend. Yet that’s what the New Zealand government in its various guises has been promoting now for over a decade.

First we had the Kiwi Card — a national identity card that everyone would be forced to carry in order to access services like health, social security and so on. It was, quite rightly, shunned by New Zealanders right across the board. So it was dropped.

However, last year we all signed up for a driver licence with our photos and signatures scanned into a database stored somewhere. Can we be sure it’s secured or that other agencies won't get access to it? How long will the records hang around? What if I find there’s something wrong — how do I get it changed?

Now I see the Ministry for Social Policy (anyone else start thinking about Eric Blair when that name pops up?) is mooting ID numbers for everyone to ensure privacy for the individual while at the same time allowing data-matching across agencies.

This area is at best a minefield and at worst holds the potential for disaster. There are benefits to be had by sharing data across the various agencies — think of the recent cases of child abuse involving victims who “fell through the cracks” in the system. There are also problems, of course, that will need addressing.

We have to tread very carefully here because setting the rules will be far easier than changing them once we’ve started. We have to instill a culture of privacy in our public servants who, all too often, it seems, feel we taxpayers are a burden or a commodity to be shunted around and avoided at all costs. It goes beyond simple privacy. Public servants need to be reminded that these are real people’s lives they’re dealing with — with real families and bills to pay and work hassles and likes and dislikes that will be affected by any decisions that are made.

I guess I’m asking the mandarins to develop a conscience, which may or may not be feasible, but in the era when everything about us is stored on a database, it’s essential.

Send email to Computerworld journalist Paul Brislen. Letters for publication can be sent to cw_letters@idg.co.nz.

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