Personal Data 1976-2016: RIP

The March 1976 issue of BCS’s Computer Bulletin could have had its main article beamed back from 2016: ‘Computers and privacy.’

Indeed, one of the 2016 challenges that BCS is undertaking is around personal data and how it’s used. Here is the second sentence from the introductory white paper piece in 1976: ‘We are concerned and involved in the total use of personal data in our society, and see the need for control of this situation as a positive act.’

It notes that citizens are right to be concerned with the use that their personal data is put to, whilst also recognising the potential advantages. From a time when allowing an app a bit of geolocation information in exchange for a service was the wild dream of a science fiction writer, this is prescient.

Definitions

The writer, J. J. Kenny, notes that data privacy will no doubt continue to be equated with one of its components - ‘data confidentiality and the protection of personally sensitive data.’ Right again.

He also notes the semantic problems associated with defining harm - and whether that in fact may be a function of one’s position in society and/or personal viewpoints. The same applies to the definition of what constitutes personal information. The 1984 Data Protection Act went some way to defining this.

I couldn’t find out the level of influence that BCS had in the subsequent Acts, although all the basic principles are in this 1976 Computer Bulletin. The white paper also refers back to the BCS views of 1971/2 and 1973/4, which it notes hopefully influenced the then already existing Swedish legislation on data use and the act that was before the German parliament at the time.

Accountability

An interesting sentence: ‘An implicit commitment is made that those responsible for holding personal data in a computing environment will need to be held accountable publically.’ TalkTalk will confirm that happened. (Other losers of personal data are available).

As now, many BCS members were foreseen as being affected: ‘as members of organisations handling personal data, as individuals responsible for the handling of this data and as citizens about whom data is collected and stored.’

And some of the nuances of a twenty-first century conversation are also evident from the 1976 commentary on the whitepaper. Kenny notes that ‘my real disagreement with the report is in its assumption at many stages that protection of individual privacy rights is achieved by data security. This may be a necessarily basic requirement in order to achieve control on the use of the data, but too great an emphasis on security has been compared to a ‘Maginot Line’ mentality, which, at great cost, gives complete security against everything except where real dangers exist.’

Why were BCS involved in this (other than the obvious)? A good answer came from an adaptation of Parkinson’s law by Arthur Miller (author of 1971’s The Assault on Privacy): ‘... technological improvements in information handling capacity have been followed by a tendency to engage in more extensive manipulation and analysis of recorded data.’

Miller is still around in the era of big data - a time when there is so much data that can be analysed that it can even de-anonymise the apparently anonymous.

The white paper

The paper itself certainly shows knowledge of the then fledgling internet. Noting that, without legislation, personal data would likely be freely transferred between companies, NGOs, governmental departments and more who are ‘on the network’.

The paper makes for an interesting snapshot of supporting legislative approaches: the 1971 Data Surveillance Bill, and Control of Personal Information Bill, the Hesse Data Protection Act - and comments on the lead that the US and Swedish bills had already built over the UK.

It also cites a 1975 white paper that had already proposed the setting up of a ‘data protection authority’. The DPA addressed a lot of this... but the potential of misuse of personal data has moved on.

Get involved with today’s conversation at: www.bcs.org/personaldata

There are no comments on this item

Leave Comment

Post a comment

About the author

Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

See all posts by Brian Runciman

Search this blog

October 2017
M
T
W
T
F
S
S
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31