The Orwellian Nightmare: Version 2.0

With personal data being gathered on such a wide scale by both companies and governments, Tom Brewster asks: Are we in an updated version of the Orwellian Nightmare?

Furthermore, while there is plenty of data out there for businesses to harvest, there are laws governing what they can and cannot do with it. Here in the UK there is one piece of legislation in place to prevent companies from excessive and unwarranted use of information - the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA).

Under the law, businesses are required to keep personal information safe and ensure they are not keeping out-of-date data. The DPA also requires companies to let people know why their details are being collected and what is happening to it, although how many businesses actually inform the consumer is difficult to pinpoint.

As for the effectiveness of data protection laws in the UK, however, they have come under heavy criticism from some corners for not being tough enough. Even though the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) was recently handed the power to fine companies up to 500,000, some say this simply is not a strong enough punitive measure.

Indeed, towards the end of June, the UK was told it had two months to inform the European Commission on what measures it would be taking to improve its regulatory framework and ensure it complied with the EU Data Protection Directive.

Many from within the country are behind the commission, including the Open Rights Group, which said the coalition Government now has a great chance to prove it wants to protect citizens' privacy.

Jim Killock, executive director at the Open Rights Group, believes the UK version of the Data Protection Directive is "defective," which has led to the Brussels action.

"EU legislation has been useful in creating a pressure for higher standards," Killock told IT PRO.

It is important the Government recognises people' concerns about personal data security in a deeper way than they currently do, Killock added. "People are ahead of both legislators and bureaucrats on this one."

So, at the current time regulation, at least in the UK, does not appear to be as tight as many would wish. Not only are companies making use of our data on a wide scale, some could be doing so carelessly as they consider the punishments as comparatively lightweight.

Take the recent Google Wi-Fi scandal and the ICO's response. The UK body said it was satisfied with Google's promise to delete the data as soon as reasonably possible and it now appears the search giant is not to be punished in this country at all.

Now compare this to other parts of the world where direct legal action is being threatened and it becomes apparent why some are so concerned about data protection law in the UK.

No way out?

Back to the global scale, it is hard to see how the proliferation of data will cease, or how companies will be stopped from getting hold of it somehow.

In a culture where to get by you have to be a participant in the digital world, a way out of the situation seems even more unattainable. Many people will, of course, be happy with the status quo, contented in their blissful, open, data sharing paradise.

But for those who are not satisfied, is there any hope? Llewellyn believes large organisations collecting personal data are just too big for individuals to take on, or even for other companies to challenge.

He thinks it will require a catastrophe on the scale of the BP oil spill to shake things up and for tougher sanctions to be imposed.

It would need the companies themselves "committing suicide by taking too much advantage of what is an open market at the moment" and this could well happen in the near future, Llewellyn said.

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