We're living in a global beta test to determine the legal and ethical boundaries of data collection

In the fast-expanding world of ubiquitous personal data, sometimes it feels like we’re living in an enormous global beta test to work out what’s acceptable and what’s not.

This week, Google was hit with a £2.7bn legal claim over allegations that it illegally harvested data from 5.4 million UK iPhone users. Google denies the accusations, which are the latest in the long-running “Safari workaround” saga whereby the search giant bypassed privacy controls in Apple’s browser.

The UK government has been forced to reconsider its controversial Investigatory Powers Act after the European Court of Justice upheld a claim by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson that indiscriminately collecting our personal data online was illegal. A new consultation on the proposed changes kicked off this week.

And we’ve also heard warnings from campaigners at Privacy International about the scale of data collection by financial institutions as a result of the growth of fintech – new, typically mobile app-based services to help us manage our money.

It’s clear that even with laws in place, the legality of what companies can and cannot do with our data is a minefield, with every new controversy lacking established case law to determine what’s right or wrong. A further example has recently come to light, as the High Court found Morrisons supermarket chain liable for a data breach in which a former employee posted the personal data of thousands of workers online in 2014.

Internet giants like Google and Facebook are constantly testing the boundaries of what society will consider acceptable – and so far, they are extending those boundaries faster than society can keep up.

While data sits at the heart of the digital revolution we’re going through, our personal information is at the core of the revolutionary aspects of this epochal period of change.

Many major times of social change in history have been characterised by greater availability of information – the democratisation of data. The Reformation was powered by the printing press, churning out Bibles in the thousands that weakened the hold of the Catholic Church. There was the growth of libraries during the Renaissance– and the explosion in newspapers in the UK during the Industrial Revolution.

Big data” is the modern equivalent – the significant difference being that the information becoming ubiquitous is all about us. As that data increasingly feeds into artificial intelligence systems, the question of who controls and moderates its use becomes ever more critical.

The government recognised this in the recent Budget, offering £9m to fund a new centre for data ethics. New EU data protection laws next year also hope to give individuals more power over how their data is collected and processed.

If you’re a digital optimist, history suggests that eventually we will establish boundaries of acceptability – both legally and ethically. But until we get there – and it seems a long way off – we’re at the mercy of corporations and governments testing how far they can push us all.

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