Kim Nguyen and Romasha Sanyal
Ever thought about how when you use the fingerprint sensor on your Android, you’re actually just uploading a digital print of your biometrics? Or that your Facebook news feed isn’t just confirming what you believe about the sugar tax, but actually shaping it based on prior political activity (be it memes liked, pages visited or blog posts shared)? Or even that the first page of your Google search results is different from what your fellow Candy Crush-devoted tube commuter might find for an identical string of keywords?
Data privacy might have hogged the limelight in recent times because of the ubiquitous GDPR that purged subscribers’ mailing lists nationwide, not to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but not nearly enough is discussed with respect to how it affects the group most vulnerable to its invasion – children. Enter defenddigitalme, an organisation led by Jen Persson, which has been working steadfastly since 2013 to spread awareness regarding the collection of data on school children for the National Pupil Database by the Department for Education. With their recent #MyRecordsMyRights campaign, their mission is not only to raise awareness among students and parents about the collection of around 500 personal data points, in a process that begins at nursery and continues all the way to secondary school, but also to encourage children to check these records and report consequential errors.
It was to this end that four students taking part in UCL’s ‘Active Citizenship’ programme headed to the National Education Union headquarters during a sunny, sleepy afternoon in May, where we met Jen for the first time. Over the course of the next four hours, we discussed what data privacy meant for us personally, analysed relevant issues that made headlines in recent years, and identified important allies and stakeholders in campaigning for more oversight and protection on data.
First and foremost, we learnt the nitty-gritty of campaigning and the kind of logistical and financial support that goes into making campaigns sustainable in the long term. Jen was extremely helpful in painting a realistic picture and ensuring we came to our own conclusions, be it the implications of losing funding or whether the United Kingdom was headed towards an Orwellian state. Her narrated experiences perfectly complemented our morning sessions at the Institute of Education – which ranged from lectures on thinking critically about human rights to the more technical aspects of campaigning, such as filmmaking or developing strategies. We soon realised the pros of working with a small organisation, such as being able to observe first-hand Jen’s passion for her work, and having complete creative freedom to work on our final video. Indeed, although our motivation fell after half of our team members dropped out, the two of us resolved the problem of filming by opting to do an animation instead. Jen taught us the basics of a nifty little software called Animaker, and our efforts paid off as to be screened at the closing ceremony.
All in all, our two weeks at defenddigitalme impelled us to consider the implications of sharing data in a world where it is becoming increasingly easy to find intimate details about strangers. Working with Jen helped us realise that privacy is important not just as a fundamental human right upholding our dignity as individuals, but because it influences the very structures of power balance in society between governments, corporations and ordinary citizens.
The information you looked up for your Sustainable Urbanism module or the shirt you just bought off ASOS shouldn’t really be used against you, but it is, and data brokerage firms use precisely such details to create individual profiling and segmentation. Consequently, the fight for digital privacy really boils down to the fight for equality and non-discrimination on the grounds of fairness, as Rawlsian as that might appear. In the end, data collection might seem like a simple trade-off between convenience and a few details about your personal habits. But hopefully we’ve convinced you enough about its repercussions so that the next time, when you accept the terms and conditions after scrolling past them hastily, you’ll pause to consider what is really at stake, and question what you might have taken for granted, like we do.