Expert Opinion

Social media users freely share personal data but fear highly-regulated Government ‘snooping’

Dr Simon Hale-Ross, law lecturer at Leeds Law School, Leeds Beckett University, writes on digital security.

Big data is big business

As the Cambridge Analytics scandal has shown, your personal data is much sought-after, especially by advertising corporations. But despite the initial outcry, which led to billions of dollars being wiped off Facebook’s value, most social media users are still sharing that very same data. When it comes to personal security, the public appears much more concerned about the Government’s ability to switch on our webcams, listen to our phone conversations and track our whereabouts around the clock.

Complacency in the face of growing technological advances seems to be the main issue at play here. While freely and extensively sharing personal data online through social media and other open sources - to companies such as Facebook – we are trusting App developers to abide by their legal agreements not to share the data we give them access to. The horizontal sharing of data - between the public and private companies - has now become a major focal point, not least due to the new EU General Data Protection Regulation 2016 (GDPR), designed to increase data security and harmonise the law between the 28 Member States. In addition, the UK is currently debating the new Data Protection Bill 2017-19, which will serve to replace and update the 1998 Act.

Regardless of the fact social media and other open sources lack legal regulations and accountability mechanisms, the public appear much more concerned with the sharing and access of their data with and by the state, otherwise known as vertical sharing. It’s true that the UK has some of the most intrusive powers of data surveillance in the world, brought about by the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. This allows government agencies, such as MI6 and GCHQ, to carry out bulk data acquisition, bulk data screening via autonomous AI algorithmic systems, and bulk equipment interference, also known as legalised hacking. Smart phone microphones and webcams can be activated without your knowledge or consent, your data screened and personal data sets stored for future use.

But the bulk powers can only be used following a warrant authorised by the Home Secretary and approved by an independent judicial commissioner. From the information supplied, they are rarely used and these safeguards render the powers fairly balanced in terms of protecting the public and thereby collective security, with maintaining individual data privacy rights. Through these powers, the state has been able to prevent acts of terrorism, organised criminal activity, and capture those involved with online child sexual abuse imagery.

Despite the states’ powers serving to protect life and public safety, people are still, generally more concerned with the vertical access to their data, despite of course the amount of regulations and safeguards in place, something which the private sector lack.

Leading experts within this field will be speaking on these issues at the Symposium at Leeds Beckett University on 4 June 2018. This has been organised by Dr Simon Hale-Ross, Lecturer in Leeds Law School, and leading expert on counter-terrorism law and policy, and electronic data surveillance. His book titled ‘Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: The UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication’ is already available for pre-order and will be published by Routledge in July 2018.

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