Forum on the World Economic Order: “Siri, Snowden, Social Media: Data Privacy and Digital Rights”

The Forum on the World Economic Order welcomed its tenth delegation of experts in October for an eight day study tour focusing on data privacy and digital rights. During the program, which took place in Washington, DC and Salt Lake City, UT, the delegation met with over 25 data privacy practitioners in the U.S. from the private sector, NGOs and non-profits, think tanks, academia, and state and federal government.

The discussion in Washington, DC opened with the question of digital equity, understanding that those who are marginalized in society can also be disproportionately affected by data misuse. The lack of federal data privacy laws has led in turn to a lack of transparency for both digital marketing and campaigning online, both of which target vulnerable portions of the population, such as children and the elderly. This has led to a push from civil society for greater transparency online for both government and corporations, such as Ranking Digital Rights’ Corporate Accountability Index. However, despite a general belief that a standardized data policy would benefit both consumers and companies, the majority of discussion partners agreed that developing consensus for a minimum acceptable standard of privacy among the 50 states is unlikely.

A continued theme in the conversations in Washington, DC was the question of who owns the data, and how that definition of ownership frames the privacy debate. If an individual is the primary proprietor of his or her data, then privacy can be considered a human right, such as it is interpreted in the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, if a company considers data produced by their products or platforms about users to be more of a commodity, then their perceived responsibility will not be interpreted in the same way.

The discussion in Salt Lake City differed from that in Washington, DC, with the starkest contrast being the privacy issues pursued at the state level. Unlike in Washington, DC, where much of the conversation centered on private sector data misuse, Utahns are much more concerned with government, and by extension law enforcement, overreach with access to data. The primary question then became if  digital property should be regulated like physical property, in light of a recent Utah data privacy law that requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to unlock and search a suspect’s phone, just as if they were to search his or her home. The majority of discussion partners maintained that although the ease of access to personal information online can aid government/law enforcement in pursuing terrorists or other criminals, it was vital to a state’s rule of law that digital rights not be compromised for the sake of security.

Courtney Flynn, Senior Program Associate, Forum on the World Economic Order