Monday, September 17, 2007

Google offers olive branch to privacy activists

Google, the data behemoth and "internet superpower" (The Economist) has recently suffered from extensive sympathy withdrawal. Founded by two Stanford graduate students and rising meteorically to utter domination of the internet search market (recent market share: 48 per cent), the company originally managed to present a public face that endeared it to many, summed up in its corporate slogan "don't be evil". This translated nicely into healthy corporate profits: in the first quarter of 2007, Google earned 1 bn. US $ (up 69 per cent on the previous year) on a turnover of 2.53 bn. US $.

But popularity can fade quickly, the company had to learn. Criticisms were mounted about Google's acceptance of the Chinese government's censorship demands, and the unparalleled data collection of the firm triggered sceptical questions as to its goals. These questions became more pressing as Google came bottom in a privacy ranking of internet service companies conducted by Privacy International this summer.

Now Google has decided to reclaim the moral high ground by publicly calling for new international laws to be set up to protect personal information online (see reports by the Financial Times, the BBC, and c't [in German]). At a UNESCO conference on "Internet Ethics", the firm's Global Privacy Counsel Peter Fleischer called for a harmonisation of international privacy standards, noting that the existing situation without global standards left consumers largely unprotected — but that it also harmed economic progress.

Fleischer advocated the adoption of the rules agreed by APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 2004. While the head of the EU's "Article 29" working group of data protection commissioners, Germany's Peter Schaar, welcomed Google's initiative, some scepticism is perhaps in place. One of Australia's leading experts on data protection, Graham Greenleaf from the University of New South Wales, expressed great caution at the time the APEC proposals were discussed and passed. And the summary of the standard given on the APEC website looks rather simplistic.

Of course buzz words like "global standards" sound attractive, but ultimately the quality of that standard is decisive. How do they compare against what many so far regard as the "gold standard" in privacy protection, the EU directive of 1995? If someone knows the source of a comparative analysis of the two, I'd be grateful for a hint! Until then, I reserve my judgement on the merit of this initiative.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Senior UK judge wants everyone on DNA database for fairness reasons

One of the United Kingdom's most senior judges, Lord Justice Sedley, today demanded that every UK resident and every visitor to the country should have their DNA recorded on the national DNA database (see, respectively, the BBC news website, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Telegraph on this).

Sir Stephen Sedley, a senior appeal court judge, described the current system as "indefensible" and argued that to fix it there were only two ways. Reducing the database could lead to serious offenders escaping conviction when they would otherwise have been brought to justice, so this would be "a disaster". Therefore, the only option was to expand the database to cover the whole population and all those who visit the UK. (The population is about 60 mio., and another 33 mio. visit the UK per year [see National Statistics website]).

The UK's national DNA database is already the world’s largest: Two years ago, in 2005, almost 3.5 mio samples were on that database – or 5.2 per cent of the overall population. Next year, the database is planned to cover 4.25 mio samples or 7.5 per cent of the population. (For comparison: The EU average is currently slightly above 1 per cent, and in the United States, the respective figure is 0.5 per cent. The UK, in other words, is literally miles ahead of other, similar countries in this area, holding the data of between 6 and 15 times as many of their citizens as other countries.)

Judge Sedley (who, interestingly, is also President of the British Institute of Human Rights) received a mix of criticism and support for his views. Home Office minister Tony McNulty said on the Today programme that he was "broadly sympathetic" to the judge's views which had "a real logic" to them; Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman, however, denied this morning that there were any plans to introduce a universal database; opposition politicians from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives strongly criticised the idea. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, warned that it raised serious issues around the criminal justice system: "if you get the knock on the door saying 'we’ve found your DNA’, you’ve got to start proving your innocence". And Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti called it "a chilling proposal, ripe for indignity, error and abuse".

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