‘Are we all tagged pigeons now?’

June 23, 2017

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by Catherine Stihler, MEP for Scotland

This is part of a blog series examining the theme of online data privacy and public libraries. More information about the wider project can be found here.


‘Are we all tagged pigeons now?’ asked Timothy Garton Ash in his recent book when considering the data conundrum. We walk around with our mobile devices which can locate where we are at any given moment. Many of us do this without thinking: convenience first, privacy second. What we look at and who we speak to on-line can all be tracked whilst the content we post can come back to haunt us as Google’s long term memory of what we did in the past is better than our own. Do you remember the email you sent on this day 5 years ago? Our data is used to tailor advertising. Take the holiday website you may have looked at pops up days later when you are innocently browsing at something else. ‘How could my computer be so sophisticated?’ is one reaction, ‘creepy’ is the other.

Yet at the same time we consider privacy, we also want more tailored offers to meet our own individual needs. How can we therefore get the balance right between privacy and effective e:commerce? How can we understand more closely and take steps to control who or what sees and uses our personal data whilst still being effective in today’s digital reality?

The European Parliament is currently considering this very challenge with the new regulation on privacy and electronic communications better known as the ‘e-privacy’ proposal. It is seen as complimentary to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which is set to come into force in May 2018. The lead MEP who is steering the proposal through the Parliament is the trusted Estonian academic and digital rights advocate, Marju Lauristin. This week sees the presentation of her report in the Civil Liberties committee with several committees providing opinions. Her report will consist of amendments to the European Commission proposal which came out at the beginning of the year. Once the vote takes place in the European Parliament, the likelihood that next year or earlier there will be a formal negotiation between the currently 28 member states and the Parliament to agree a deal which then will apply across 500 million people. Regardless of BREXIT, e-privacy rules decided upon in the EU will have to implemented whether we are members of the EU or not. The stakes are high and the lobbying intense especially from on-line advertisers and publishers. So what would be a good outcome for your e-privacy?

Firstly the principal of ‘privacy by default’. Currently people give away their data without knowing. Smartphones default settings should provide citizens with the highest level of privacy protections possible. We must ensure that the concept of ‘privacy by default’ underpins the proposal.

Secondly, the Commission text still allows for the possibility of the tracking of physical location and movement of users without asking for their consent. We must ensure that citizen consent is respected and that as a general rule you cannot collect data from people unless they have agreed to their data being used in such a way. I support an ‘opt in’ rather than an ‘opt out’ method of giving consent. You should know what you are giving away before you give away your privacy rather than the other way around.

Thirdly, the citizens voice has to be heard. As producers of data and often the victims of data breaches, there has to be effective collective redress mechanisms so that the law can be enforced and citizen’s rights effectively exercised. I would like to see libraries playing a key role in the effective delivery of digital rights knowledge and privacy understandings.

Finally there needs to be provisions for the privacy of children. In the GDPR regulations, young people and children were recognised as a special group and were given protection under the new law. Any new e-privacy rules should be in line with what has already been agreed in the GDPR.

If we can reform e-privacy laws to the reality of today with ‘privacy by default’ and ‘citizen consent’ first, we can end being ‘tagged pigeons’ for good and fly free. The fight in the European Parliament is now on. Please get involved in the debate to ensure your privacy is protected and your consent is properly granted when navigating the digital world.