Friday, 30 November 2012

midata – the false prospectus. Every time you look, you see another mendacious argument

There is a peril in conflating the concepts of open data and personal data

Sometimes you sit down to write a post and you get to work on it, only to find that someone else has done it first – and what's more, in 22 words flat.
How Midata will affect business and consumers

Kathleen Hall
Tuesday 20 November 2012 12:47

As the government pushes private companies to release customer data under its Midata initiative, Computer Weekly looks at what this means for the digital economy and who stands to benefit most from this new form of "consumer empowerment".

The government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has singled out energy companies, mobile phone firms, banks and payment companies as key organisations that should release customer data to allow consumers to make more informed decisions under its Midata initiative ...
Ms Hall goes on to describe how midata will force suppliers who already provide us with a record of our transactions to provide us with a record of our transactions.

She introduces the reader to Professor Nigel Shadbolt, co-director with Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee of the Open Data Institute (ODI). He believes that there is money to be made by people writing apps to process personal data and help them to make better decisions.

She interviews Nick Pickles, the director of Big Brother Watch, who has reservations about midata.

And she interviews Owen Boswarva:
Owen Boswarva, open data activist, warned there is a danger of consumers being blasé about their information being passed on to third parties. He said the potential risks were in danger of being de-emphasised.

“On the face of it, this is presented as being an unalloyed good thing, and you can’t argue with having more access to data. But it will depend on the checks and balances in how this is implemented,” he said.

Boswarva said he would like to see additional processes built in to ensure data is handled properly.

“There is a peril in conflating the concepts of open data and personal data, which I feel the government may be doing,” he said.

(Boswarva links added by DMossEsq,
not in Computer Weekly article)
And there it is. In 22 words. Admirable conciseness: "There is a peril in conflating the concepts of open data and personal data, which I feel the government may be doing". That's all that needs to be said.

Glutton for punishment?

Here's the DMossEsq 1,000-word version.

25 September 2012, and the Guardian publish Time for online users to devise a transparent internet we all could trust by Alastair Crawford, the founder of 192.com.

First we get:
... consumers have much to gain through sharing personal data and by understanding what data exists on them, either for making smarter purchases or exploring commercial opportunities – the government's Midata project, being debated in the enterprise and regulatory reform bill, enables consumers to demand the transaction data companies store on them. This will allow consumers to understand their spending patterns better and become smarter shoppers.
Followed by:
... a post-Wikileaks world requires accountability – if we are not accountable, someone will account for us. Perhaps this is the thinking behind the UK government's Open Data initiative, which makes public data available so we can better understand policy decisions and see the "raw data driving government forward".
And finally:.
It's particularly important that the biggest player in this equation remains the individual. The individual must be empowered to take greater control over the use of data created by and about him. As more data is created on people, there must be an ever more sensitive balance between privacy and accountability
Never mind the fact that equations don't normally have players in them, you see what's happened there?

Against a background of transparency, trust, understanding, smart shopping, accountability, empowerment and control, the argument moves from personal data to public data and back to personal as though they should both be open, as though they're comparable.

They're not.

It is not just legitimate but essential that Whitehall expose as much data as possible showing how they spend 700 billion of our pounds every year so that we can look for ways to get better value for money. There is no such imperative for individuals to expose their personal data – which is what midata would do – and there is every reason to reveal as little of it as possible.

On that basis, Professor Shadbolt's involvement with the ODI seems nothing but benign. But why is he involved with midata? Why is the co-director of the ODI (public data) also the chairman of the quite different midata (personal data)?

The answer centres on Garlik Ltd, a company the professor collaborated with (or founded) and which has now been sold to Experian, the credit referencing agency, which is one of the UK's seven appointed "identity providers".

Garlik helps people to avoid identity theft/fraud. So Professor Shadbolt has some relevant expertise in fighting fraud. Good. But then why would he promote midata, an initiative which can only increase the incidence of identity theft/fraud as people record more and more of their personal data, including logon IDs and passwords, in their personal data stores, on the web?

Every time you look at midata you see these contradictions:
  • midata promises to make suppliers provide statements. But they already do.
  • midata promises to give consumers control over their data. But that control is not midata's to give ...
  • ... and anyway, midata looks more like giving up control than gaining it ...
  • ... because the way midata works is that you hand over all your data to a trusted third party you have no reason to trust ...
  • ... who stores it on the web, which you know is a dangerous place to store it.
  • The advocates of midata promise loudly that it will boost the UK economy but admit that it might not ...
  • ... while staying very quiet about the way the scheme would work in practice and particularly the dangerous  need to create a personal data store on the web.
  • midata is supposed to help people make better decisions, but the only examples given are switching applications – switch mobile phone suppliers, switch gas and electricity suppliers, ... – and those applications already exist. We don't need new legislation.
  • midata involved introducing new regulations. The department for Business Innovation and Skills say it will have a de-regulatory effect.
  • ...
It's a false prospectus. One mendacious argument after another. Of which the elision of public and personal data is just one more.

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Added 27.12.12:
Government revives plan for greater data-sharing between agencies
... Guy Herbert, of the No2ID campaign, said he was alarmed to see the revival of the Blair government's database state policies. "There has been a consistent – and it can only be deliberate – habit in Whitehall of conflating 'public information', which most people take to mean information about the state, with information on the public held by state agencies. This has now been hooked on to the new administration's modish transparency, and is used to suggest that 'open data' implies opening us all up to inspection at official whim. It doesn't."

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