29.07.2018

Personal data in the public sphere: Is protection possible?

The regulatory capacity of States lags behind the technology of multinational tech giants that handle most of the world’s data. Is each State running out of solutions to defend the individual privacy of its citizens?

Sylvain Lesage (right) with Daniel Agramont (left) in conversation, July 2018. Photo by FES Bolivia

"We live in a world with a growing digitalization of everyday life and of family and work relationships, which happens and remains recorded, to a large extent, in the digital domain," warns Sylvain Lesage, French-Bolivian activist in the area of information technologies.

Lesage is the author of a paper on collective solutions to personal data security, published in Spanish this July by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Bolivia as part of a series of activities in the country on data security in the digital age.

Daniel Agramont, Project Coordinator at FES Bolivia, spoke to Lesage on the complexities to protecting personal data in the public sphere and a government’s capacity to safeguard it in the digital age.

Why is the debate with civil society about data protection so complex?

The debate has become increasingly complex because it covers several spheres. Regarding the private sphere, in a general way, we live in a world with a growing digitalization of everyday life and of family and work relationships, which happens and remains recorded, to a large extent, in the digital domain. Regarding the public sphere, the implementation of digital government or electronic government implies, more than anything, the management of information records in a database format for each citizen…. So, in parallel to the private ones, many databases are being generated, in this case, administered by the State in general and public entities in particular.

However, the debate on the subject addresses personal-to-personal communications that are managed by private companies globally (like conversations and private life events) and are being stored by each company’s rules. This occurs because there are a few multinational platforms that control the market and that handle the communication tools (companies such as Facebook, Skype, messaging or telephone) and that work thanks to the handling of all the information that [we] create or make public through social networks.

Considering that only a few transnational corporations handle most of the world’s data, what do you think about the debate on the regulatory capacity by States?

There has not been much progress at the global level so far. When we talk about data managed by private platforms, nobody has found a right way to regulate these large corporations. The strongest action has been the European regulation on personal data. But this, more than a defence of individual privacy, is an economic war on issues of information technology and communication between Europe and the United States. The purpose is to protect European companies, [using] the argument of privacy protection. This is evident in specific issues of this debate, such as taxes or access to data. Keep in mind that the regulation wants to counter the fact that there is great economic value generated by these companies, and very little [of that economic value] remains in the same country.

Facing these large platforms, the only successful action that has been implemented so far has been a regulation for companies that have some relationship with the territory, such as Uber, Airbnb or Deliveroo. Unlike what happens with such platforms as Facebook or Twitter, those that have a presence in the national territory must have a license to operate. And in this sense, States can impose more regulation (taxes, access to their data, etc.) But for all the rest of the large platforms, we have run out of solutions—which means that these companies impose their conditions and their terms, and we do not have many means to regain control over our private or personal data.

How do you see the current debate in Europe?

There is something that is not correctly perceived here [in Latin America], but in Europe it is strong in the collective memory: the Second World War. Regarding our specific topic, there are topics recorded in people´s subconscious, like the lists of Jews and communists. The French government, in its collaboration with the Nazis, established a system to search archives and administrative records for [the purpose of] repression and for deportation. [It was] a system of data collection for all that went against [the French] ideology at that moment. So that has kept very strong in the minds of Europeans and the French, in particular. That is why we have a law for data protection in France, passed in the seventies, when it was not a global issue yet.

Thus, beyond the debate about modern digital platforms, it is something that we all have in mind in Europe. In this way, everything related to the protection of personal data has a different connotation and magnitude in Europe. Not here [in Latin America]. Although there were such events as the Condor Plan, the issue of privacy is not very present in the collective imagination.

Nonetheless, I repeat, I believe that the decisions in the European Parliament are due more to the economic war [on trade in electronic services] than to a willingness to protect privacy [personal data]. It is a form of economic protectionism against giants—multinational corporations that come mostly from the United States and that have also grown thanks to the investment of the US government. Then, given that Europe has not been able to stop these large digital platforms, it seeks to protect its market with restrictions that are allegedly protecting people’s privacy [their personal data].

How do you see the debate in Latin America?

In large part there is no debate. There are some groups who care for protection of personal data, but the majority of the population does not care or does not even realize that there is a problem. What is highly relevant in society’s collective imaginary is the need to protect people´s identity, families and children. In other words, the main worry is to protect the information that [each individual] has decided to make public. But the subject of personal data and the role of the State I see as much weaker. And the main issue proponed by the political opposition here in Bolivia is that the State would take advantage of databases storing people's private data to manipulate elections, an exaggerated position that has little to do with the realities on the ground.

Recently, there has been growing concern about how to protect ourselves against abuses by public officials, how to prevent them from misusing the data or accessing too much information about [us]. About this topic, there is vast legislation in Europe that … would perfectly fit here [in Latin America]. To begin with, there are several principles that are not only easy to understand but also applicable and that can be replicated in our countries, such as the principles of legitimate ends, minimizing the [amount] of information [per person] and also the right to be forgotten.

Regarding the economic issue, we are a bit on the sidelines. Our countries don’t profit off the digital economy. Almost no online platforms are generated here—rather, the most popular platforms are used. There are some national companies that are emerging (e-commerce, real estate, etc.), but it is still something small. In addition, we are not on the other side either, which is called the “proletariat of data”. Several South-East Asian countries that have a large workforce have become the proletariat that feeds the artificial intelligence for a few cents an hour. They are workers who perform a very simple and poorly paid job.

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For more information on the work by FES in Bolivia, visit the country office website and follow their Facebook fan page for daily updates. 

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