Tone at the Top revisited

I’ve written in the past about the problems with the “tone at the top” around Data Protection and Data Privacy in Irish government and political circles.

Bluntly, with few exceptions, it seems they don’t get it, don’t like it, and would rather it go away. That attitude cascades down into government departments where it is almost (again with few exceptions) impossible to sack staff members who blatantly breach basic Data Privacy rights of individuals. Whether it is Social Welfare staff providing information to private detectives without authority or snooping on the personal details of lotto winners or celebrities, or formal political policies that presume a panopticon and damn the data privacy implications and risks.

The icing on the cake for me was Minister for Justice not seeing the problem with disclosing sensitive personal data about a political opponent on national television. I’ve written about that last year.

But the bum notes at the top are resonating higher and further. Our candidates for the European Parliament, the body which only recently has managed to push back against a wholesale dilution of data privacy rights of over 500 million people, are almost unanimous in their silence on the issue of Data Protection. Even those such as Sean Kelly who were active in European Parliament committees looking at the Draft Data Protection Regulation are silent on the issue. (And remember it was only last year that Sean Kelly won an award from the IAB Europe (an internet advertising representative body) for his work on the Data Protection Regulation, and only a few weeks ago that he was voted “MEP of the Year for the Digital Agenda”)

Of a total of 37 candidates only THREE have signed up to support a Charter to oppose any measure “that removes the power to make decisions on matters that affect European citizen’s fundamental rights from the judiciary or democratically-elected policy-makers”.

Three. Out of 37. Less than 10%. 8.1% to be precise. And every single one of them in Dublin.

But the Charter is not perfect. I would have an issue with item 10 which calls for the promotion of Free/Open Source software in public sector environments if was to be interpreted as a “thou shalt not purchase commercial technologies that have warranties and approvals and proper liability if things go tits up”, but that’s not the interpretation I’d put on it – I read that as a “closed source is not the only fruit” and personally think that individuals pushing an ‘Open Source or bust’ approach to things are often missing the total cost of ownership (risk, compliance, learning curves, stability, longevity etc.). However, as @Treasa pointed out to me on Twitter, FOSS ideologies are often presented and pushed as dogmatic mantras which brook no potential use of closed source or proprietary technologies for any reason. She is right of course. That is a risk. And perhaps it is a barrier to candidates endorsing the Charter, in which case candidates should flag that they can do anything for love (or votes) but they won’t do that.

(disclosure: my company makes minimal use of some Open Source technologies, but only where the platform is stable, reasonably standardized, and interoperable. We advise clients to consider total cost of operation and governance if putting Open Source in the mix on projects, based in part on personal experience of having to abandon tools that became unsupported or just unworkable)

And the use of a list (albeit one which is non-exhaustive and not overly prescriptive) might be off putting. But I’m not sure what other mechanism might have been used for the effective presentation of the key points of the charter. Perhaps keeping it focused on privacy issues might have been enough?

But overall the Charter is a positive statement of position and opinion on a range of fundamental information rights. It doesn’t mandate any other position other than to ensure that the Parliament have a democratic decision making role and that the Judiciary have an oversight function in the development of policy and legislation in this space.

And only 8.1% of Irish candidates have expressed a preference in favour of their having a role in defending data privacy rights or ensuring oversight on the selection of suppliers to EU projects, and all of them representing Dublin.

Our political classes don’t appear to care enough – either to sign the charter or explain why they won’t and what their position is on key principles.

The “tone at the top” drones on it seems.