Dr Jules Polonetsky on the changing face of privacy in the digital age

4 Feb 2019

Image: © wattanaphob/Stock.adobe.com

As digital technology and the data economy become more entrenched in daily life, how can we approach privacy?

The challenge of balancing the rapid pace of technological change with privacy and ethical concerns spans across a litany of areas. As smart cities, consumer genetic testing, and other data-leveraging technologies and systems become the new normal, a new sense of what privacy means must evolve alongside these.

CEO of the Washington-based Future of Privacy Forum, Dr Jules Polonetsky, discussed these issues and more in a lecture entitled ‘Navigating Privacy in a Data-Centric Word’, hosted by Adapt, the SFI-funded centre for digital content technology, at Dublin’s Trinity College.

Dr Jules Polonetsky smiling, wearing a black suit with a blue tie and white shirt.

Dr Jules Polonetsky. Image: Future of Privacy Forum 

As he began his talk, he said: “It behoves all of us to figure out how to put the rules in place that facilitate those goals while ensuring that we are not building an Orwellian society as we facilitate those goals.

“That’s going to be really hard because there really are some challenges here, and we need to come up with the right designs and balances and structures.”

GDPR setting a global standard

Polonetsky spoke at length about how GDPR could set a benchmark for further work on privacy legislation in other jurisdictions, noting some particular challenges that lie ahead for the regulation as it approaches its first birthday.

One such issue is the need for more clarity around how it applies in the world of research, he told Siliconrepublic.com. While “GDPR recognises that research is something that society values” and it is viewed as an acceptable secondary purpose for the use of data, the concept of what exactly constitutes research is set to become a thorny issue.

“Research, we understand, is necessary to improve society,” said Polonetsky, but the question of who gets the legal protection attached to this is a difficult one. “In some countries, unless you publish it in an academic journal, it’s not research.” Polonetsky noted that some of the groundbreaking research currently being conducted is corporate research, such as pharma or machine-learning topics being examined by tech firms.

The question in the near future will be: “Who gets into that more favoured bucket? It’s going to be quite grey; there are some things that are research that are also product development.” These are crucial questions for researchers working with corporate data, part of an “incredibly important challenge”.

CNIL v Google

Looking at how the data economy is being altered by the regulation, particularly the ongoing CNIL-Google legal case, Polonetsky was frank: “It is clear that there are a lot of complicated business models that are in friction with GDPR.”

For tech companies dealing in data, the question is: “What is the right way to explain all the different things that happen to your data when you give it to Google? There is a chance for regulators to actually lay this out and say if you’re adtech, here’s what you do; if you’re an OS, here’s what you do.”

Adding that it was unfortunate we would be learning about these parameters through “litigation and enforcement”, Polonetsky urged regulators to set out guidance and for firms to do careful market research around best practices in consent. “I’m hoping that cases like this will lead to real investment.”

A changing attitude around privacy

Discussing the general population’s attitude towards privacy and sharing on social media, Polonetsky said that it’s “always interesting to see how the younger generation who had grown up with some of these technologies defining it in the way they want to use it”. He mentioned his teenage daughter using two Instagram accounts, “one of them is more official to her, she curates the pictures and it is very intentional”, while the other is for “casual things”.

He noted that it was not a case of younger generations considering this a privacy issue, but more so that it makes sense for them to have different ways to reflect their online presence, touching on Instagram and Snapchat Stories as an example. “[An Instagram story] is not a serious thing that is intended to be archived forever.” To him, it is an emblem of society “slowly forcing technology to reflect the way we actually act”.

Polonetsky ended with a question and a call for a more nuanced approach to privacy from tech firms: “Why shouldn’t more of our data decay in ways that reflect what our needs are?”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects