Doesn’t have to be Surveillance vs Privacy

Jason Smith

Seems like for the last 10 days now I’ve been reading article after article that suggests our rights to privacy will likely be curtailed by the need for surveillance to defeat the Covid19 pandemic. This came to a head when I read Maciej Cegłowski, ‘we need a massive surveillance program’. I get where she is coming from, but I felt a little dismayed that these words were written by a privacy activist.

It doesn’t need to be a zero sum game. There are ways for us to retain control over our data and a semblance of privacy. Can I introduce you to a personal data store. A few companies (Solid, DataSwift & Meeco) the boundaries of what’s possible. Another future does exist.

A personal data store is simply a secure (usually encrypted) place in the cloud where we can host our personal data. The data could be anything. It could be your bank transactions, a digital ID, your fitness and health data from wearables and your mobile data. Only you would have access to this data unless you decided to share it with organisations as part of some value exchange. The sharing would be via API. You decide who you want to share it with; which individual data attributes you want to share and for how long. Total control.

Imagine if your data belonged to you. Your personal mobile data would be yours and you could keep it in your personal data store. In times like these you could decide to share, maybe just your location data, nothing else, with Public Health Authorities so they could undertake contact tracing. Indeed, your health and fitness data might also contain valuable data that you could share with medics in the event that you happened to contract the virus. Information that could help how you manage the virus remotely without going to hospital but could also perhaps indicate when the severity increases and you need to seek hospital admission.

The benefits of Edge computing could allow for computations to be done on your device, within your personal data store app, meaning that you only need to share insights and not the raw data.

At any point in time you could decide to turn the data sharing off. There would be no need for time bound legislation as suggested by Maciej. No fear of a state failing to roll back it’s surveillance powers.

This isn’t some futuristic sci-fi scenario. We can do this right now. All we need is legislation, like GDPR, extending our data rights so we get to have the data that is currently harvested by businesses, usually for their own benefit and not ours.

About the author

Jason is the Chief Commercial Officer of and is a creative thinker and innovator around data, AI and technology. Jason has worked on data innovation and led a global project on trustworthy data sharing. Previously, he established a data lab as part of ScaleUpNation, using machine learning & network science to research critical success factors in scale-ups. He has written and presented radio documentaries for BBC on social media/data (‘Being Social’) and artificial intelligence ('Becoming Artificial) and is currently working on another BBC commission relating to social media use in COVID-19 lockdowns.

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