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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Archive for May, 2011

Flexibility and balance (as my running companion often says…)

Friday, May 27th, 2011

There’s an interesting debate going on right now about what seems to me to be a very modern problem.  Namely how we get the balance right between protecting our personal data and sharing it in a way that meets our aspirations to the way we want to live today.  The opportunities of the Connected Age are endless.  We move freely across boundaries, both in the real world and in the ether.  We freely exchange ideas, music, comment, money and information.  This makes us faster, gives us access to goods and services in a way we could only have dreamt of two decades back and opens up a new universe of interaction.

But.  (And didn’t you ever hear that “but” coming?).  Wherever I am, I want to be confident that my privacy, my safety and my freedom are strongly protected.  I want my personal information to be safe and secure, not exposed to criminals or intrusive government snoop-troops.  Equally, I want to be sure that my details are shared where I can benefit.  I want insurance and credit if I need it; I want my doctor to have access to my medical history before he starts looking at my tongue; I want to be reasonably confident that I am not sharing my flight abroad with a terrorist.  All these require pooling of information.  And the benefits are real.  It was the use of Passenger Name Record data that enabled the identification of the terrorist facilitator at the heart of the Mumbai attacks.  And it was communications data that helped to identify individuals who orchestrated the influx of high grade heroin from Afghanistan to the UK.

But the balance between freedom and security lies at the core of this.  This is why the UK is also introducing a major bill to parliament to improve people’s freedoms, a bill that will include stronger independence for the UK’s Information Commissioner, safeguards against the misuse of Counter Terrorism stop-and-search powers, further regulation of CCTV and reform of our scheme governing the vetting and barring of ex-offenders.

So much for where we are.  What about where we’re headed?  Well, alongside my plea for balance I’ll introduce a second and – I promise, final – watchword.  Flexibility.

The European Commission has recently published proposals that look forward to a single, all-encompassing European regime for data protection.  But imposing a single, inflexible, codified data protection regime on the whole of the EU, regardless of the peculiarities of different cultures and legal systems, carries with it serious risks. We come from different cultures.  And while we share common values and interests within our broad European home, no one would pretend that the debate on internet freedom in Sweden and the UK – let alone Sweden and Bulgaria – exists independently of those national experiences.  Moreover, if the internet age teaches us one thing it is that technology and capability change faster than we ever imagine possible.  Strong regimes of control designed for today quickly become outdated.

Flexibility and balance, then. As my running companion often says.

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