Chris Gabriel looks back on a period of controversy over government data collection practices and asks, “Which bit of my data do I most want collected and used?”
In the last few weeks I have started to become really angry about the issue of government and data collection. The recent newspaper stories related to various governments collecting all sorts of information about citizens got me thinking, and as I say, it got me really annoyed. Incandescent even!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not angry that they may have been collecting stuff without my knowledge. If they want to analyse the content of emails I send then in a way I am sorrier for them than I am worried about my privacy. Why I failed yet again to send a birthday card to my brother on time, or the location of the next camping trip to be abandoned in favour of a hotel will keep an analyst in a secret listening station enthralled for, what? A matter of seconds, probably.
No, they can collect away; it’s their hard disk they are using up.
What got me mad was that most government agencies and private companies who collect my data fail totally to do anything useful with it. I don’t get better service, faster services, or from government, any services at all based on the data they have and what they should be able to extrapolate from that.
I have ranted about this before; so while I simmered just below boiling point this time, I thought I should highlight the data I would like them to use and act on. The first thing that dawned on me is that I really want government to collect every single thing it can do something useful with.
My two priorities were health data on my family and I, and education data about my kids.
If they can keep my wife, my children and I well, by analysing past illnesses, past family illnesses, current epidemics, pandemics, local outbreaks of colds and sneezes then go for it. In the future if they can real-time monitor me for all manner of things, and give me advance diagnosis or some predictive testing for something they think I might have way before I start spluttering and coughing then strap the sensors on.
My kids attend school every day, have lots of lessons, lots of micro tests, lots of reading with teacher, lots of conversations, lots of puzzles to solve, and lots of homework, and once a year I get a piece of paper saying they have done really well, get on well with the fellow classmates, are always cheery and they have been a pleasure to teach. That doesn’t help me intervene in maths, provide some extra help in English, or work with the school on minor improvements to help my child become better educated.
I don’t want to know if they are nice; I know that already, they are both lovely angels, I want to know how their day to day activity could help them become a doctor, a pilot, or heaven forbid, work in the IT industry.
If government could just get to grips with the data it has, or the data it could have, I for one am willing to give it access to every piece of data it needs; it doesn’t have to capture it from the internet, I’ll hand it over willingly.
Now, while I am willing to give this data freely to the government, because these two areas can only improve my family’s health and education, I know it will also use it to possibly make some decisions I won’t like. But, with all benefits come some downsides.
The issue I have today is that the only thing government seems to do with my data is use it to get money off me or fine me for not doing something on time. Tax returns, car taxation, driving licence, TV licence, vehicle inspection tests, all things the government uses data to hit me in the pocket.
Even so, I think I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for a little bit longer, but, while I don’t expect to be insulated from my data being used for the good of the government, I do expect to be exposed to the benefits data collection and analysis can bring.
At the moment, it’s one-sided, and that simply isn’t good enough or acceptable. In the words of an old song, don’t give me shelter (from data collection), give me benefits.