Whose data is it anyway?

I have deliberately avoided writing about privacy so far because it looked like a far too thorny issue that I really knew too little about. But I was shaken out of my reluctance after reading about Kopimism, the world’s newest religion, which was officially recognised by the Swedish government on 5 January.

Established by a 20-year-old philosophy student in Sweden, the central tenet of Kopimism is that communication and the internet are holy.  Kopimists believe the search for knowledge is sacred and that copying and disseminating information is ethically right.  CTRL+C and CTRL+V, the computer shortcut keys for ‘copy’ and ‘paste’, are considered sacred symbols and their stated opponent is the Copyright Religion.

After you’ve picked yourself up from rolling around on the floor with laughter, it’s worth considering what these earnest young people (I am, possibly erroneously, assuming they are all young people) are really on about.  Isak Gerson, the founder and spiritual leader (yes, really) says ‘information is the building block of everything around me and everything I believe in.  Copying it is a way of multiplying the value of information’.

Their ‘religious practices’ involve worshipping the value of information by copying it.  It is perhaps telling that Kopimism was founded jointly with the Pirate Party (not as fun as it sounds), which wants to reform copyright laws and get rid of the patent system.  Now, bearing in mind my limited knowledge of this subject and the fact that I am not really part of the digital generation, this just sounds to me like a ruse to be able to download and copy music, movies, books and who knows what else, whenever and as much as you like.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with copyright laws, but it strikes me that demanding a free-for-all on the grounds that ‘it’s your religion’ is opportunistic.  The likes of Cliff Richard and J K Rowling may well not need any more royalty payments to get bread on the table, but that won’t be true for the vast majority of musicians or writers (not that I imagine Kopimists spend much time sharing Summer Holiday or Harry Potter).

But more to the point, when they talk about knowledge and information, what do they actually mean?  The English page of their website doesn’t seem to make any distinctions, so I can only assume that they believe you should be able to search out and copy all information, from the most sacred to the downright profane.  Which probably includes information about me.

I am not at all sure why a bunch of Swedish students would be remotely interested in my data, and to be fair they do say communication needs to be respected and that it is a direct sin to monitor and eavesdrop on people.  The problem is that a lot of the information about me swirling around in cyberspace has probably been collected quite ‘legally’, either because I have directly volunteered it for sharing, or because I haven’t ‘opted out’ of sharing it.

Which is where it all gets a bit troubling and where Kopimism potentially collides with EU proposals to tighten up data protection laws.  On one level, much of the data we’re talking about is trivial and, seemingly, unimportant:  what music I’m listening to (it’s Lana del Rey if you really want to know); what I’m wearing (pyjamas and slippers, the joys of homeworking); what I had for breakfast (porridge); what I like doing (mostly sleeping, with a bit of yoga and scuba diving thrown in); and who my friends are (I don’t have any).

However, aside from the fact I should surely be able to buy music and wear what I like without anyone judging me for it (they are clean pyjamas), all this information is used to slice and dice me and decide what products and services I should be offered and, quite possibly, which information I should be shown.  The convenience of doing my shopping online and using Facebook to catch up with my friends is offset in no small measure by the likelihood of my buying habits and interests being horded in some vast data bank mined mercilessly by the agents of capitalism to sell me stuff.

It might not matter too much if this information is being used to push music, clothes, or even cars or holidays; it becomes more worrying if we’re talking about insurance, credit cards or bank accounts.  Because decisions about whether to sell you these products or not are mostly made by algorithms without human discretion, this could have quite serious consequences.  And all this is before you’ve even thought about the more nefarious uses your personal data could be put to, like identity theft.

The problem is that hardly any of our privacy, data protection or intellectual property laws were made with the knowledge of the internet or what it would become.  Governments, more traditional industries and even individual consumers have been slow to catch on. In the meantime, the likes of Facebook, file sharing platforms and the Kopimists have stolen a march on the new definition of privacy and ownership of data.

Against this backdrop, it seems rather quaint that it was invasions of privacy through phone-hacking that led to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press.  Even though it is mobile networks that make it so easy to eavesdrop on our private conversations, this does feel rather like the last gasp of ‘old technology’ (of course, in the very very old days it was difficult, if not impossible, to tap phones without people finding out as it involved putting large-ish objects in or near the phone.)

That’s not to ignore the serious online privacy issues that have come to light (the NightJack story in particular).  But I don’t get the impression Leveson will be able to do anything other than make cursory recommendations because it is whole inquiry by itself and because we are not talking about privacy in the traditional sense, whereby people expect certain activities to be private.

Rather we are in a strange new world where people aren’t even thinking about their privacy because it hasn’t yet occurred to them that anyone outside their immediate circle would be remotely interested where they went on holiday, their views on tax or what book they’re reading.  The trouble is, by the time they’ve worked out how to tighten up their privacy settings it will be too late and they will be pigeon holed for evermore as a surf bunny refusenik who reads Harry Potter books and the Daily Mail.

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