Journalists have been asking me whether the revulsion against the abuse of Facebook data could be a turning point for the campaign to recover privacy. That could happen, if the public makes its campaign broader and deeper.
Broader, meaning extending to all surveillance systems, not just Facebook. Deeper, meaning to advance from regulating the use of data to regulating the accumulation of data. Because surveillance is so pervasive, restoring privacy is necessarily a big change, and requires powerful measures.
The surveillance imposed on us today far exceeds that of the Soviet Union. For freedom and democracy’s sake, we need to eliminate most of it. There are so many ways to use data to hurt people that the only safe database is the one that was never collected. Thus, instead of the EU’s approach of mainly regulating how personal data may be used (in its General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR), I propose a law to stop systems from collecting personal data.
The robust way to do that, the way that can’t be set aside at the whim of a government, is to require systems to be built so as not to collect data about a person. The basic principle is that a system must be designed not to collect certain data, if its basic function can be carried out without that data.
Data about who travels where is particularly sensitive, because it is an ideal basis for repressing any chosen target. We can take the London trains and buses as a case for study.
The Transport for London digital payment card system centrally records the trips any given Oyster or bank card has paid for. When a passenger feeds the card digitally, the system associates the card with the passenger’s identity. This adds up to complete surveillance.
I expect the transport system can justify this practice under the GDPR’s rules. My proposal, by contrast, would require the system to stop tracking who goes where. The card’s basic function is to pay for transport. That can be done without centralising that data, so the transport system would have to stop doing so.