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ICO pledges to support innovation

UK data privacy watchdog is increasingly gearing up to support innovation to ensure developers of tech and digital services do not lose society’s trust

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) needs to work with the community of privacy professionals to regain trust and support tech innovation, says Simon McDougall, executive director, technology policy and innovation at the ICO.

“We can succeed in winning the battle of trust only if we work with privacy professionals and continue engaging with the community to understand the challenges that you are facing and then bring it back into what we are doing,” he told attendees of the IAPP Data Protection Intensive 2019 in London.

According to McDougall, the battle for trust is currently being lost, with a growing number of people in society becoming unwilling to trust businesses, organisations and innovators with new things.

“The reason we are losing this battle is that every time we create something cool, we are not bringing people along with us, and so they are not keeping up and this trust deficit just continues to widen.”

McDougall said privacy professionals need to work out how to engage with people on questions around innovation. “Otherwise, we are going to risk building this trust deficit to unmanageable proportions.”

The ICO, he said, is tracking this trust deficit in several ways, including an annual survey that shows that only 15% of UK citizens polled have a high level of trust in social media and tech platforms, which is a marked change from just a few years back when most people thought tech firms could do no wrong.

Another indicator of growing mistrust, said McDougall is the fact that complaints received by the ICO in the past year increased by 113% compared with the previous year. “Now there is a GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] effect in there, but the complaints are not particularly about GDPR issues, but good old-fashioned privacy issues such as transparency, notice and unexpected from people using data.”

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Another recent survey about advertising technology (ad tech) by the ICO revealed that while 63% of those polled initially said they were happy with receiving free content in exchange for advertising, after they were shown how real-time bidding and programmatic advertising works using a profile taken via a cookie and then shared with organisations that may bid on this, the proportion of people who still said they were happy with this dropped to 36%.

“Again, people aren’t willing to trust. When they get a bit of information about what is going on, they step back and say maybe not, which is part of a bigger picture. It is part of the age of mistrust we are living in and which is being manifested in so many different ways,” said McDougall.

In his only reference to Brexit, he said there are aspects of that which are to do with a lack of trust in institutions.

“We are perhaps living in an age of anger, an age where people feel disempowered, unhappy and marginalised, and that is critical to privacy because we are talking about imbalances in power. We are talking about what organisations can do with your data, and people are feeling unhappy around that.”

Despite this growing mistrust, McDougall said people are still using social media and other online services. “I think that is because people don’t feel empowered to do anything about it, and so they carry on. But acquiescence does not equal trust. We are building a trust deficit as we are building change.”

Addressing mistrust

McDougall said the privacy community needs to act now to address this deficit of mistrust, and that perhaps the key lies in the fact that wherever people do feel as if they have power to act, they do. An example of this, he said, is using ad blockers.

“In the UK, 22% of people use an ad blocker to remove advertising from their browsers and their apps, and this rises to 43% in the 18 to 24 age group. This shows young people do care about privacy and that people are using privacy tools that are available to them.”

McDougall said it is imperative that society have an informed discussion around these issues to avoid repeating what happened with GM foods in the UK where things moved from negative sentiment to an outright ban without any proper discussion around the pros and cons.

“This is an opportunity as well for privacy professionals,” he said. “We get this. This is our time. We got past the GDPR, but now we have to engage with issues about society and new technology.”

In this regard, he said the ICO is aiming to be proactive and engage in new technology and innovation. “Really making sure we understand what is happening, that we are supporting this debate, and that we are supporting the innovation agenda as well.”

In this regard, the ICO is embarking on a number of initiatives, he said, such as investigations into the ad tech industry and the fact that data profiles of millions of people are being circulated among thousands of players in order to serve personalised adverts.

Developing design code

The ICO is also working with the government and other stakeholders on developing an age-appropriate design code for online service providers, finding ways of explaining how artificial intelligence (AI) decisions work in a way that the average person will understand, setting up and AI regulators group, and building an AI audit framework to set guidelines for good practice for developing and building AI technology.

Other initiatives include working with other regulators in innovation hubs to provide a one-stop-shop for innovators, providing research grants, a soon-to-be-opened sandbox to provide the opportunity for innovators to de-risk what they are doing, as well as providing guidance on new technologies such as blockchain and updating guidance cookies and anonymisation.

And finally, McDougall said the ICO wants to make sure that it is part of the support network for privacy professionals working on the frontlines. “The innovation discussion is critical because that is one way privacy professionals can stop being the people who say ‘no’ to being the people who say ‘yes’ we can do this if we do it in this way.”

It is in everyone’s interest, he said, to rebuild trust. “This makes me optimistic. I don’t think this is a lost battle. I think we can win by rebuilding trust. If all stakeholders work together, we have a fighting chance, and in the end we will win.” 

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