The Data-Driven World: A European Perspective

Notes from the TechAmerica Europe seminar in Brussels, March 27, 2013

This may not be the most timely event write-up ever produced, but in light of all the discussions I’ve had on the same themes during the past few weeks, I thought I’d share my notes anyway.

The purpose of the event was to peel away some of the hype layers around the “big data” discussion, and — from a European perspective — take a look at the opportunities as well as challenges brought by the increasing amounts of data that is available, and the technologies that enable its exploitation. As was to be expected, an ever-present subtext was the potential of having laws and regulations put in place which — while well-intentioned — can ultimately stifle innovation and even act against consumer interests. And speaking of innovation: Another theme running through several of the discussions was the seeming lack of technology-driven innovation in Europe, in particular when considered in the context of an economic environment in dire need of every stimulus it can get.

The scene was set by John Boswell, senior VP, chief legal officer, and corporate secretary at SAS, who provided a neat summary of the technology developments (cheap storage, unprecedented access to compute power, pervasive connectivity) giving rise to countless opportunities related to the availability, sharing and exploitation of ever-increasing amounts of data. He also outlined the threats posed to companies, governments, and individuals by those who with more sinister intent when it comes to data exploitation, be it for ideological, financial, or political reasons. Clearly, those threats require mitigation, but John also made the point that “regulatory overlays” can also hinder progress, through limiting or even preventing altogether the free flow of data.

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Call Record Privacy Is Not Just A US Issue

As individuals get better access to the technology that enables their participation in the information age, so privacy has to be considered and regulation applied to raise standards to those that are acceptable across that society. It was interesting, therefore, to note the cultural recoil that occurred in response to the NSA’s recently discovered, and rather widespread, caller record collection (not to mention other 'PRISM' related data!) - it’s clear that this has crossed a boundary of acceptability.

This isn’t however, just a US problem. A news story recently broke in India highlighting that local law enforcement agencies had, over the past six months, compelled mobile phone companies to hand over call detail records for almost 100,000 subscribers. The requisitions originated from different sources and levels within the police force and their targets included many senior police officers and bureaucrats.

Unlike the NSA scrutiny, which although potentially unreasonable, at least appears legal, the vast majority of these data requests did not have the required formal documentation to uphold or justify the demand, yet they were fulfilled. This revelation was revealed by Gujarat’s State Director General of Police, Amitabh Pathak, and came hot on the tail of a similar story originating from New Dehli where the mobile phone records of a senior political leader, Arun Jaitley, were also acquired by a very junior law enforcement officer.

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