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Why your data doesn’t need protecting
(As much as it needs unleashing!)

Gianfranco Cecconi
21 Jul 2022

Whether in data management circles or in everyday conversations in the street, the concept of personal data protection is a sacred cow. But once an idea achieves this status, it stops being questioned. This is a mistake.  

As I walked the sunlit streets of Helsinki, Finland, on the 20th of June, I was all set for a relaxing and informative day of data management presentations. Little did I know, I would be opening this year’s MyData Conference just after the keynote by activist journalist Julia Angwin, a person whose work I greatly admire. And then, my friend and colleague of many years, Esther Huyer, called to ask me to stand in for her after her journey to Helsinki was compromised. “Fear not, Esther,” I said. “You’re in good hands!” We brainstormed over the phone as she shared her original intention for the speech. In making it mine, I took the opportunity to do something different and say the quiet part out loud. In short: data does not need protection; data needs unleashing.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been working in this field long enough to know the necessity of data protection, whether describing individuals or organizations, to ensure privacy, confidentiality, or intellectual property. However, in recent years, I have realized that the balance between the need for data and data protection needs has started to shift. Unprecedented global challenges are changing our priorities. We now need more and better data to tackle climate change, address the next health emergency and make our economy equitable and sustainable for nine billion people. We still need data protection solutions, but they should not come at the expense of sacrificing the immense value of using it in the first place. This was what I wanted to communicate at this year’s MyData conference.  

The data conundrum  

It might sound like a marketing pitch, but it is true: data has the potential to address and mitigate – if not find a solution to – many of society’s biggest problems. Despite the advantages, many of us still resist the opportunities. I’m not asking you to give up your privacy or to stop trying to protect any sensitive data. I’m merely asking you to consider taking the risk of sharing your data to unlock its real value when you have the opportunity. Whether you like it or not, you are already part of collaborative data ecosystems. We all are. Our data feeds AI algorithms, design visualizations that communicate and educate, and produce blueprints for change. We limit our collective progress when we limit ourselves to the data we think of as safe.  

“I’m not asking you to give up your privacy. I’m just asking you to consider the wider impact of what you make possible when you share your data.” 

Think of it this way: the risk of driving doesn’t stop us from seeking the rewards of visiting new people and places. The pleasure and benefits vastly outweigh the risks. We put our seatbelts on and mitigate the risk as much as reasonable, and then off we go. We should think of data sharing in the same way. Security concerns and legal implications should not prevent us from unleashing the power of data, because there are “seatbelts” for data sharing, too. Technology is progressing continuously and significantly to reduce security risk. Evolving regulatory frameworks give you the means to manage the legal aspects.

Enduring ideals 

The good news is that thousands of civil servants, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and data scientists worldwide are working hard to deliver those seatbelts, the sort of safety solutions that would encourage more sharing across all dimensions relevant to this space, from technology to regulation. Many of these individuals attended the conference in Helsinki. More still are associated with MyData Global and contribute to its mission every day. We all have one thing in common: we welcome the progress that’s been made in cybersecurity, confidentiality, and privacy-preserving practices. Remember, even those among us who argue the loudest for change, the activists, the politicians, the technologists, we also have sensitive data of our own to protect. Even looking at technology alone, solutions like differential privacy and homomorphic encryption make data more secure than ever. Despite only recently becoming popular, the former was developed in the early 2000s and the latter was first conceptualized in the 1970s. This proves technology preserving privacy and confidentiality has always gone hand in hand with data processing, and it always will. The difference today is that innovation is being accelerated by a collective shift in consciousness. Our changing sensitivity to data protection is moving the goalposts. 

“Civil servants, politicians, technologists, lawyers, activists, they are all working for you to give you seatbelts for your journey, as you share data.” 

Much like with the decarbonization and net-zero goals, governmental regulators are stepping in for the benefit of society. Hundreds of civil servants and members of parliament in Europe contributed to writing and delivering the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example. It led to more precision and clarity in what businesses and organizations in general can and cannot do when processing data describing European Union residents. Far from being a burden – though it was perceived by many as such – legislation freed us. Like brakes for a car, it allowed us to drive faster within the constraints of sharp bends. Within the framework of the GDPR, individuals feel they can trust these organizations with the data that describes them.  

More recently, the Data Governance Act was passed by likeminded people to establish a safer framework for sharing and reusing sensitive data. Similarly, only a few days ago, the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act were approved, both further refining citizens’ rights in the digital space, often with implications on how data is used. Sure, progressing legislation is a long process, but the topics are far from being neglected. 

The way in which our data is handled affects everyone, and when used ethically, it can change the world. As such, good deeds are no longer the sole domain of NGOs, governments, and researchers. But many businesses keen to unleash data need guidance from an experienced partner. 

MyData: the movement committed to self-determination 

Professionals who associate themselves with and support the MyData principles are human-centric when it comes to managing sensitive data. On one side, we know how concerned people are about how their data gets handled. On the other side, we know the handlers are equally concerned. It can be challenging to unpack all this new legislation, and talent is needed to master the technology. It’s so problematic that many organizations are reluctant to accept your data. Firstly, there could be significant legal consequences for any mistakes, even honest ones. Secondly, incidents can ruin an organization’s reputation and credibility. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with legislation. Rather, the general lack of knowledge about how to use data within the legislative framework is the problem. Once educated in the field, many leaders quickly realize the framework is not a cage but scaffolding, not constraining their operations but exposing them to new opportunities. This is the benefit of joining a movement like MyData. It can help organizations develop the knowledge, tools, and solutions they need to unleash the true value of data. The movement’s annual conference is a chance for more people to begin catalyzing fair data solutions. 

Writing the next chapter  

I want to leave you with a word or two about personal agency. Given today’s challenges, we’ve never been so individually encouraged to do our part. Sure, there are movements like MyData dedicating a significant amount of bandwidth to helping you navigate this increasingly challenging space. But as with the other challenges we now face, there’s plenty you can do with data to help yourself and your community. To begin with, you can work on becoming data literate. No one’s asking you to be a data scientist, just literate. After that, you can help your friends and relatives do the same. You can learn about data licenses and your rights within the legal framework. You can take an interest in the introduction of new legislation and begin thinking about how to react. But why stop there? You can go one step further and advocate for the ideals you believe in, thereby ensuring they are turned into law by legislators. The European Commission, for example, regularly runs consultations, giving you the chance to have your say and thereby shape the future. And in the end, this is the kind of control we all want.   

Learn more about Capgemini’s commitment to a sustainable and prosperous digital society: More Power to You: Capgemini Joins Data-sovereignty Pioneer MyData 

Stay tuned for the next part of our series of reports on the MyData Conference 2022: Pierre-Adrien Hanania’s presentation on How Your Personal Data Helps to Achieve UN Sustainability Goals