What are the issues around personal data and the reality of cross-sector information sharing? On 9 June BCS hosted its latest IT Impact event on this very subject.

Entitled ‘Information without borders’, it was hosted by journalist David McClelland and featured presentations by Channel 4 news reporter Geoff White; Shami Chakrabarti CBE, former Director of National Council for Civil Liberties; and author Alan Mitchell.

Shami Chakrabarti talked about what it means for citizenship when information has no borders; whilst Alan Mitchell, asked whether there is a solution that can allow us to share data cross-sector safely and for the good of society.

I will do a full write up of those shortly, but for this post I thought I’d talk about the most dramatic part of the evening, which came courtesy of Geoff White.

He began his part by speaking on the importance of understanding the emotional context of what we do with our data. And to make his point he performed a real-time experiment on BCS Director of External relations, Adam Thilthorpe.

First Adam needed to log on to a pre set-up Wifi network called, in no way intimidatingly, Geoff’s friendly network. Adam then had to use his phone - visit websites, open apps and so on.

A screen showed the movement of Adam’s raw data.

Geoff asked the audience, as he always does with this experiment, how many packets of data were used in the experiment - which lasted for around five minutes. In non-IT literate audiences the answers are always too low, although the strike rate was a bit better here (phew).

So, how many was it? 30,306.

Despite the IT literacy on display there were still audible gasps at this. Geoff then went through what the location data and corporate data revealed. Some of the destinations were unsurprising: Apple, Facebook and so on. But who are the ‘Rubicon Project’?

The mapping data showed that in that five minute window Adam’s data had holidayed in the US, the UK, Vienna and more. Do you know all the data protection legislation that applies in those locations?

Geoff White uses this demonstration as part of his ‘The Secret Life of Your Mobile Phone’ project, using Wireshark to track the data (other data package tracking software is available).

With the common public shock at this demonstration, a useful questions can be asked: When what at happens on a phone leaves the majority of consumers in dark, is the IT industry a hero or villain? As White says: ‘People will think you are on the darkside if you keep people in the dark.’ (other Star Wars references are available in the full write up).

More information on the BCS challenges are at www.bcs.org/impact/data

The tweets from the night are viewable by searching on the hashtag #ITGoodForSociety

About the author

Brian Runciman 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.