Brexit’s got Talent?

I think Charlton Heston put it best:

Damn them all to hell! They finally went and did it! They blew it up!”

That was my immediate reaction to the Brexit news this morning.

  • A campaign that was polluted by lies and misinformation from the pro-Brexit side, including a bold claim that voting to leave the EU would save £350 Million a year, a claim that was debunked during the campaign but which the Pro-Leave side persisted with on the side of their “battle bus”. A claim that the Pied Piper of Brexit himself, Nigel Farage, has started back pedalling away from within single digit hours (barely minutes) of his side’s victory.
  • A campaign that cost a wife and mother her life simply because she had an opinion that differed from that of an armed man who had embraced the propaganda of the pro-Brexiters and, rather than risk his vote not being heard, stabbed and shot Jo Cox to death.  Yes, we all now know the depth of Shooty McShootface’s political opinion. And two children are without their mother.
  • A campaign where politicians blatantly lied and spread misinformation, capitalising on decades of anti-EU sentiment from a media controlled by an immigrant who likes being able to push governments around but gets told to fuck off by EU officials.
  • A campaign where a Minister of the Crown actually said, in response to experts calling bullshit on his arguments, that “People have had enough of experts”.
  • A campaign where, having won and having chased their people pleasing PR obsessed Prime Minister out of office (bye bye Dave), the heirs apparent to the Government of the United Kingdom stopped and, in the manner of kids who have seen a kid who has eaten all the sweets in the sweet shop and now realise what the words “diabetic” and “coma” mean when an ambulance paramedic is shouting them into a radio, have faltered in their cocksuredness that this Brexit thing is something that’s needed. “No need to rush things” says Boris Johnson. “I’ll have to consult with learned minds” says Gove.  Hopefully none of those learned minds are actually experts, because we all know Gove has had enough of them. But if they’re not experts, then is Gove just consulting with the winners of his local Trivial Pursuits club raffle?

Perhaps the arse falling out of the UK (and global) economy as if they had personally shovelled the economic equivalent of senokot and pure dysentery into the bowels of the world financial systems has softened their cough.

Perhaps they didn’t think they’d win so they didn’t have a plan? And now the plan they need will have to be a tad more cunning than one of Mister E. Blackadders. Because the plan they had been following thus far seems to have been concieved by Mr S. Baldrick. But no sensible politician or political leader places the economic futures of millions, the fate of the United Kingdom, and the stability of the global economy in jeopardy without having some semblence of a plan to deal with the fall out when things go their way.

Oh fuck.

But that’s not the bit that gets me angry. Campaigns like this are always fuelled by lies and misinformation from at least one of the sides involved. And a certain class of politician is always going to think of themselves as Machiavelli (instead of Ronald McDonald) and try to use a hiccup to foment a crisis that gets them to the leadership position they want. That’s just the bullshit cut an thrust of politics.

What gets me angry, and makes me very worried, is the Facebook-isation of democracy in two contexts:

  • The UK Electorate seems to think that voting in a referendum is of no more significance than liking a cat video on facebook.

Social media is full of videos and tweets of people saying that they have changed their mind and want a do over. That’s not how it works. Democracy is important. People die to get the right to vote. So… why not think about things before you put your scrawl in a box. Waking up with “Voters’ regret” doesn’t change the fact that you voted against your own best interests and those of your peers. You can’t fix your dumb vote with a smiley face emoticon and an “Unlike Brexit” vote.

This tells me that the education system (one of the things the Brexiters blamed the EU and immigration for messing up, when it is more likely to be chronic underfunding by successive governments) has failed to teach citizens of the soon-to-be-Disunited Kingdom what voting in elections and referenda is actually all about. It’s not about finding out who gets to stay in the Big Brother House. It’s about finding out if your kids get to have a future and at least the opportunities that you had. (One bright note in this is that the younger generation who grew up with social media bullshit and reality TV actually seem to be able to tell the difference between waffle and reality. It’s just a pity their older siblings, parents, and grandparents seem to have forgotten they were voting in a referendum, not on the outcome of Strictly.

Brexit was a world altering decision. To say you voted to leave “because you didn’t think your vote would count” means you don’t understand voting, or vote counting, or addition, or just generally the concept of accountability for your actions. Crying that you want a do-over so you can vote the right way the next time is not the answer. There may be no next time (except if you are Irish and voting on an EU Referendum in Ireland, in which case we tend to keep asking variations on the question until we get the answer that is needed, like Mrs Doyle in Father Ted only with Treaties instead of Tea).

  • The Filter Effect of algorithms in Social Media may have had an impact that may be impossible to quantify

Facebook has proven, through its own experiments, that showing people sad news on their timeline makes them sad. But the algorithms that filter and shape our experiences of social media filter our view of the world. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that people who rely on social media for their news and for their impression of public opinion and trends simply fell into an echo chamber were the messages that bombarded them made them perceive and feel that their vote wouldn’t count.

With the bullshit misinformation and outright lies that circulated during the campaign, the bots and filters would have had a lot to play with in shaping a negative world view. That world view might have made marginal voters (the old reliable undecided voter) to vote Leave because they felt any other choice wouldn’t count.

I am speculating of course. But the algorithms that shape our world have biases inherited from the world views that created them, and they consume the data exhaust we leave for them to form a model of the world as we would like to see it and how the data says we perceive it. This has to have an impact.

Taking these two things together we find ourselves with an electorate who are algorithmically brainwashed but don’t consider their democratic function to be of such importance that they will take time to trust but verify the information they are given. And in that context we have shallow thinking, reflexive voting, and undesirable outcomes. And that is just the politicians.


Symphisiotomy, Redress, and the DPC

Over on the company site I’ve written a piece on Data Retention policies that references the Symphisiotomy redress scheme as a case study in data retention planning (not in a good way). For those who didn’t spot it yesterday and who are glued to the national media that isn’t referencing this huge story, let me summarise:

The State, in the form of the Redress Scheme, has told women who endured symphisotomies that they have until Monday to request their own medical records back or the State will take it on itself to destroy them. This is the same State that some of these women might want to sue, relying on these records as part of their case. The State has told the women and their legal representatives not by way of a letter, but by way of a notice on their website.

Here, on my personal blog, I get to have a small rant from time to time. This is one of those times. Because this sucks donkey balls. It is a further hideous abuse of women who have suffered, largely in silence, for years.

Donkey. Balls.

The terms of reference of the redress scheme (paragraph 46) clearly distinguish between two types of records: medical records provided by the applicants (the women who have endured the fall out of symphisiotomy) and records obtained from other sources by the Redress Scheme itself.

Paragraph 46 sets out that, for the first category of data “reasonable efforts” must be made to return the records. It does not set out a requirement for the destruction of the records. The second category of records it sets out will be destroyed when the Redress Scheme has run its course.

Regardless of source, this is personal and sensitive personal data relating to identifiable individuals. It is subject to the rights and duties outlined in the Data Protection Acts and in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Those rights include the right to data privacy, which encompasses a right to get your data, and a right to dignity.

The Data Protection Acts and the Data Protection Directive require that data not be retained by a data controller any longer than necessary for the purpose for which it was obtained. It does not require that the data be destroyed. The women whose original medical records are in question here may have any number of purposes for them outside the scope of the Redress Scheme. On-going care and treatment of any complications arising from a symphisiotomy, seeking further legal advice, simply reminding their children and grand children of how poorly the State has treated them, historical record…. it doesn’t matter.

However, the State has skin in the game with regard to the destruction of these records. If they are gone, then it becomes impossible for any of these women to exercise their rights in further legal actions because the evidentiary documentation they need will have been destroyed. This may not be the conscious intent but it is the practical reality: the State is effectively destroying evidence when these records are destroyed. While the records may not ultimately carry the day as evidence in a court action, they are still evidence of what I had hoped were historic attitudes to women in this State.

But the haste with which the State is moving to dispose of these records and the clamorous droning of the shredders firing up heralds otherwise.

The Redress Scheme was required to make reasonable efforts to arrange for the return of documents. A message on a website when your target audience are lawyers and elderly women is not reasonable. It smacks of a box being ticked: “Did we put something out there about it? – TICK”.  It is not an appropriate mechanism of communication to those audiences. A letter to a lawyer, a snippet on Marian Finucane or other radio or TV for the affected women, a feck off big advert in the news paper… all of these are infinitely more appropriate.

I would compare this to the full court press that was done in the media to raise awareness of the closing date for women to apply and provide their records to the Redress Scheme. A cynic might think that this was a cunning strategy to get the evidence in from the affected women and then arrange for its destruction before it could be used in litigation. But that would be awfully cynical.

But this is the pattern that the permanent Government (the Civil Service) seems to fall into in matters like this: Protect the State at all costs.

Compare the approach to the retention of data about primary school children to this Redress Scheme: The Dept of Education has argued trenchantly that a) data relating to medical or psychological assessments is not sensitive personal data (it is)  and b) that they need to hold the data indefinitely (expressed as “until the child reaches their 30th birthday and then review”).

Why would the Dept of Education want to know all the sensitive data about kids for many years after they would have left the school system? They have not provided a coherent answer to this, despite the Grecian work of Simon McGarr (note: Trojans partied and were massacred, the greeks stayed up late and built a horse). The DPC has been left spinning as they apparently had approved of all of this and have been fought to the wire by Simon to ensure they enforce the actual law.

The answer to why is the O’Keefe case, which put the Department on the hook for child abuse in schools. So – get all the data on all the kiddies and hold it for ever in case any of them sue because of a thing so it can be used in defence of an action.

Keep it all for ever in case someone sues. In breach of Data Protection rules which require retention to be “necessary and proportionate”.

With this Redress Scheme the opposite seems to be happening: Shred focking everything in case we might be sued. Let’s ignore that shredding this data is not within the terms of reference of the Scheme. Let’s ignore that no reasonable effort has been made to arrange the return of records. Let’s create a situation where a room full of records can be whipped in to the shredder so that if any of them were thinking of suing the State they won’t be able to.

And in the middle of this we have the Data Protection Commissioner, whose office has told survivors that they are “looking into the matter”. Not that they will use their powers under the Data Protection Acts to order the proposed act of processing (i.e. the destruction) to be suspended pending a review given the tight timescale, but that they are looking at it.

This is the same Data Protection Commissioner that the Department of Education believed had pre-approved the POD database. The same Data Protection Commissioner that has approved the publication of the name and home address of every naturalised citizen in the State without a clear purpose other than ‘the Aliens Act 1956 requires it’.  The same Data Protection Commissioner that the Department of Enterprise explicitly references as an agent of State policy in strategy documents.

And the same Data Protection Commissioner that Digital Rights Ireland have initiated an action against the State over regarding their apparent lack of independence from the State, as required under the Charter of Fundamental Rights and EU Treaties.

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is probably a duck. If it pulls the plug on the destruction of medical records provided to the State by women seeking redress for suffering, it might actually be a Regulator.

They have until Monday to act to vindicate and uphold the rights of women whose rights have already been trampled enough.

Anything else just sucks donkey balls.

Stand up for Digital Rights, Ireland.

In the Western world our rights are under attack. In the UK for example the policy of the Tory party is to abolish the Human Rights Act ( In the fast changing world of data and information private companies and governments alike go to great lengths to peer inside our digital lives in a manner often disproportionate to or ineffective for the stated purposes of ‘national security’ or copyright enforcement. The revelations over the summer from Edward Snowden, and a variety of other stories relating to the use, misuse, and abuse of our private personal data by companies and governments alike have resulted in making “Privacy” its Word of the Year for 2013 (

Last year saw the Irish Government, in its presidency of the European Union, preside over a significant watering down of rights and protections for individual data privacy in the proposed EU Data Protection Regulation. This regulation was subject to 4000 proposed amendments and one of the most intrusive lobbying campaigns by organisations seeking to reduce the protections over personal data privacy afforded to EU citizens. But last year also saw Digital Rights Ireland punch significantly above it’s weight on the European stage, with their appeal to the ECJ on the retention of telephone, sms, and internet usage data by telecoms companies on behalf of governments – precisely the same information that was at the centre of Snowden’s PRISM disclosures.

Digital Rights Ireland plays a valuable role in the evolution of our personal digital rights, particularly as we struggle to define where we must draw the line between an Information Economy, where the users of services are the means of production, and an Information Society, where powerful tools for communication and interaction allow us to engage, but to wear a mask or withdraw to our personal fortresses of solitude where we can define and redevelop our sense of self as people. Not as products.

However, DRI had one set back in 2013 which puts their ability to stand up for our rights, your rights, in an Information Society. They were on the losing side in litigation about copyright issues. Their role in the case – to be a counterpoint voice for the people and to bring additional information and perspective to the Court. The impact: the music industry looked for costs of the guts of €30,000 against DRI for one day in Court. This was reduced to €13,000 on appeal to the Taxing Master. No other party to the case is seeking costs against DRI.

The risk now is that DRI might be liquidated by the music industry representatives. For standing up and suggesting alternative solutions might be needed, for pointing out how web filtering is easily circumvented, and basically being a devil’s advocate on the side of the individuals who make up our society.

Money must be found. DRI runs on a shoestring, favours, and jellybabies. There is no salary for its directors,  no top ups, no big dinners or extravagant radio adverts. Just people who care and give up time from their day jobs to provide a voice for Digital Rights. That voice will fall silent if they cannot raise the €13,000 needed as soon as possible.

It is time to stand up for Digital Rights, Ireland. Rather than buying a data slurping tablet in the sales, or downloading another privacy invading smartphone app\tracking device, go to and check out what they do for you. Then go here ( to learn more about their problem. Then go here to donate, either a once off payment or a recurring donation.

And if you don’t, you risk waking up one day as a just another unit of production in an Orwellian dystopia.

Buying back the mortgaged off

Today’s Irish Times has a ‘news’ story about a man who, during the boom, sold his home and land for €3million and has just bought it back for €215,000.

Fair play to him. He sold a property and home he loved and made a profit. Now he can have his cake and eat it, returning wealthier to the same home and hearth.

The same, unfortunately, is not true of protections for fundamental human rights. In the current economic turmoil it is tempting to mortgage them or sell them off in the interests of supporting business and reducing red tape. However, when the economy recovers it will probably be impossible to push the pendulum back towards respecting the rights we have forgone in the interests of economic expedience. We will have a recovered economy but a diminished society.

This is what is happening with the EU Data Protection Regulation. Earlier this month the Irish Government, in one of the last acts of their EU Presidency, trumpeted their ‘victory’ in the first four chapters of the Regulation, getting a quasi kind of agreement to introduce a level of protections that has been watered down to near homeopathic levels. Whatever good is in some of the proposals the Irish Government is horribly undermined and hollowed out by the move to a purely “risk based” model of regulation (similar to that which has worked so well in Financial Services) amongst other things.

I’ve written about that in detail here with Fergal Crehan.

Principles diluted do not retain the memory of the principle. Homeopathic regulation doesn’t work. The parts of the Regulation that might have served to retain focus and concentration were the sections around enforcement and penalties.

Today we learn via a leaked document that these sections have likewise been diluted to homeopathic levels by the Irish EU Presidency (again, annoyingly in tandem with some good and positive changes)

  • The specific levels of fines to be levied have been omitted from the document (Dr. Chris Pounder on the Hawktalk blog suggests this may be due to there being no agreement, my view is that if it has been taken out whatever is put back in will be a lot less attention focussing than the 2% of global turnover levels previously proposed)
  • A range of mitigating factors and considerations have been introduced which must be considered by a Data Protection Authority before levying a penalty of any amount. 13 different factors to be considered. One for every tooth a Regulator might have had. One more line of defence to be argued over before enforcement can commence.

So, errant Data Controllers may now be in a position where they can self-assess their risks based on their own perception of the risk and impacts of their actions (just like people of a certain generation used to self-assess whether they were sober enough to drive), but just in case they get it horribly wrong the hoops a Regulator will have to jump through before being able to levy any form of meaningful penalty have grown in number and vagueness.

This the text book definition of light touch regulation. History has shown repeatedly, and at great cost, that this simply does not work.

The man in the newspaper today bought back his old family home and made a tidy profit because of a catastrophic failure of culture, governance, and regulation. Rules around due diligence and proper management of lending were set aside or worked around because it was “good for business”.

We must learn the lessons of history or we will have mortgaged our rights to be “left alone” in the interests of economic expedience and only those who held on to their financial muscle in this crisis will be able to make the payment needed to buy back that right through the Courts.

An appropriate balance must be struck between the economy and the society.

An Op-Ed about Data Protection

Fergal Crehan and I drafted the original version of this op-ed piece on the evening of the 5th of June, completing it on the 6th and submitting it immediately to the Irish Times as a topical opinion piece. The article was originally drafted in response to the EU Council of Ministers publication of proposed amendments to the EU General Data Protection Regulation that would significantly undermine the protections awarded to individuals and their data under EU law.

It wasn’t published (but them’s the breaks as they say).

I’ve updated it to include reference to the Prism and Tremora stories that were just beginning to break the week the original piece was drafted. I’ve also included references to some anti-data protection stories that have appeared in the Irish Times since the beginning of June, and a nod to the legacy of light touch regulation and associated attitudes that has recently emerged in the Irish press.

I took the decision in consultation with Fergal to publish this here as the points that are raised are important ones regarding the nature of the society we want to live in. The failure of the Irish Times to fact check recent stories raises a further question as to the role of a neutered as opposed to neutral press in the definition of and shaping of that society.

Journalists more than anyone should be alert to and resisting of any efforts to dilute or invade privacy, because it is only where there is privacy that there is the freedom for sources and whistle blowers to express privately (to journalists) facts that should be made public by the media. The logging of data about what numbers you dial, when, where from, and the uses that data can be put to could conceivably jeopardise sources, result in stories that need to be told being silenced, and force public and private conformity with a “party line” regardless of consequences. “All the President’s Men” would have been a significantly different movie if Nixon had had access to a Minority report level of analytics about who called who and who was where when – which is possible today.

A Free Press should be concerned in equal measure about attacks on the freedom of expression and the rights to Privacy. This is why Data Protection should be a hot topic of relevance, not a dry techie story of limited interest. Responsible journalists need to inform themselves of the rights that exist, the ways those rights are being undermined, and how the existence of those rights that are under threat.

A skewed balance struck

For some years now, the EU has been preparing a regulation to update and standardise data protection law in Europe. The expectation was that the rules would be strengthened, giving citizens more protection against misuse of their information. It was a shock then, when the Irish Presidency brought forward a draft regulation which not only dilutes many of the original proposals of the EU Commission, but represents a neutering of many data protection rights rights enjoyed up until now.

Data protection is a human right, closely bound up with privacy, and is unsurprisingly taken especially seriously by European countries whose citizens suffered under the police states of Nazis or Soviets, or even both. It is the right not to have your personal information hoarded, sold, disclosed or otherwise misused. “Data Protection” may not stir passions like other rights do, but in an increasingly data driven world, its importance cannot be overstated. We are already at risk of a two-tier privacy system, where the rich and famous can go to court for super-injunctions, while Joe Citizen cannot sit peacefully at home without their phone ringing with unwanted direct marketing calls.

Ireland has had the privilege of shepherding the revised Data Protection rules through the process of negotiation and agreement. The vision set out by the European Commission in its initial drafts was to provide a simplified regulatory structure for business and strengthened rights for individuals over how, where, and why information about them is processed, and by whom. This vision became the subject of one of the most intensive lobbying campaigns by US firms ever seen in the EU.

In February it emerged that amendments tabled by a group of MEPs that diluted the protection of personal data were copied verbatim from the submissions of these lobbyists. Sean Kelly, the Irish MEP responsible for those amendments, recently received an award from an advertising industry group for his work. The Council of Ministers recently issued a set of proposed changes to the Regulation that are being touted by Alan Shatter, the outgoing President of the Justice and Home Affairs Council, as providing “better protection for citizens” while also “providing a better strategy and architecture for business”.

However, privacy advocates have highlighted that while the proposed changes are good for business they are a serious weakening of protections EU citizens have historically enjoyed. Advocates in favour of the proposed changes cite the importance of data in the modern economy and the potential for jobs.

But are we building an economy or a society? In a speech this week President Michael D. Higgins tells us that the EU is a “union of citizens” and the institutions of the EU must work to protect those citizens. The proposed Regulation weakens those very protections.

The proposed changes introduce a “risk based”, self-regulation approach. This seems not unlike the “light touch” regulation which was adopted in order to attract financial services companies to Ireland, and which fuelled the financial services boom. With our government now keen to attract more data-based firms like Facebook and LinkedIn to Ireland, it seems lessons of recent history are not being learned. And in the week of the Anglo Tapes it is more important than ever that we learn these lessons.

This approach has been hailed as “non-prescriptive”. But a regulation that doesn’t prescribe anything is a mere suggestion, which can and will be ignored unless there are adverse consequences. Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner is chronically underfunded, but he can and does bring prosecutions for breach of the Data Protection Acts. It is difficult to see how a these kinds of criminal convictions could be achieved under the proposed regulation. 

Under the proposed Regulation, if your personal data is lost or stolen, the decision about whether to tell you will be left in the hands of the people who lost the data. This effectively means that there will be no right to know when your personal information is lost.

Last year Target, the US supermarket, broke the news to a father that his teenage daughter was pregnant by sending her unsolicited targeted adverts for baby products. Current laws make this potentially illegal in Europe. However, direct marketing rules are to be changed under the proposed Regulation. Companies would no longer need your permission to market to you once they have obtained your data. This is an extraordinary win for the marketing lobby, a turn from a right to privacy, to a right to invade privacy. The telemarketer, a scourge familiar to any American with a phone, is set to become an unwelcome part of our daily life too.

The recent revelations of unfettered and covert surveillance on the private commmunications of every individual in every country by US and UK intelligence services has highlighted the risks of the Panopticon. Some argue that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. But that flies in the face of our fundamental values that everyone has a right to a place where they can have private thoughts and private communications. These rights are under attack and must be defended.

But at a smaller scale, recent articles in the Irish Times have linked Data Protection rules with inefficiencies in the Ambulance service which have contributed to deaths. ‘Data Protection rules mean we can’t use GPS for ambulances’ was the claim. Bunkum is the answer. Such processing is permissible under Section 8 of the Data Protection Acts. ‘Data Protection rules will curtail genealogy’ was another claim. Again, bunkum. The draft Regulation will likely apply only to living persons, Public Registers will have certain exemptions, and the Right to be Forgotten is not a right to be airbrushed from history, as has been made clear by Commissioner Reding on many occasions, and has been made clear by the ECJ in the past week.

Data is hailed as “the new oil”. “Big data” is mined to predict everything from musical taste to voting habits. It is disturbing when rights, once considered uncontroversial, are watered down or neutralised because it has become profitable to do so. What is proposed in this draft of the Regulation is something unprecedented in the history of the EU – the effective abolition of a human right enshrined in EU Treaties. As citizens, we can only wonder and worry which other human rights will become inconvenient to big business, and what their fate will be.

Trust us. We’re the Government

Coverage of some of the structures of the Insolvency Service of Ireland has been rattling through my ears while I work the past few days. What I’ve heard gives rise to an unsettling feeling that the architects of the scheme have decided that the insolvent are a form of unter-mensch for whom some of the fundamental rights that EU citizens enjoy are either put on hold or entirely foregone.

Data protection is a fundamental right in Europe, enshrined in Article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, as well as in Article 16(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). As a fundamental right, according to the EU Commission it “needs to be protected accordingly”.

Some of what I have heard I can only hope is half-informed speculation, but I fear it may be grounded in reality.

  1. Publication of personal data including name, address, and date of birth on a public register of insolvents. This is problematic as it creates a risk of identity theft in my view. Also – what is the purpose for which this data is being published? How could the same objective be met without putting personal data privacy at risk of unauthorised access? How is this compatible with s2(d) of the Data Protection Acts which require appropriate measures to be taken to keep data safe and secure?
  2. Retention of data on the register after a scheme has been exited. It is rumoured that the details of people listed on the register mentioned above would have their details retained indefinitely. Why? How is this compatible with the requirement under the Data Protection Acts (and the underlying Directive) to retain data no longer than is necessary for the purpose? How would it be compatible with the requirement under the proposed General Regulation for Data Protection to give citizens of the EU a “Right to be forgotten”? What is the function/purpose of retaining information once the agreed scheme has been completed?
  3. Section 186 of the legislation purports to exempt the Agency from Section 4 of the Data Protection Acts. This is the section that allows individuals to get copies of information held about them by Data Controllers. It is a right that is derived from Directive 95/46/EC. While there are grounds under Article 13 of the Directive for a member state to limit subject access requests where it impacts economic or financial interest of the State, I’m at a loss to see how a response to a Subject Access Request for a single person or class of people might impact our economic and financial interests as a State. The test is that the restriction must be necessary not nice to have. Of course, if things are so precarious that a Subject Access Request will tip the economy into a death spiral, then perhaps the Irish people should be told this.


There is a significant imbalance in rights and duties emerging here. Particularly when compared with the secrecy of NAMA and the closeness with which the privacy of significant contributors to the exuberance of the Boom times has been guarded by that Agency. There is also a suggestion that Data Protection rights are optional extras that can be mortgaged as part of entering the process.

I really do hope I’m wrong about all of this and it is not the data black hole that it appears to be and that personal data privacy will continue to be respected as a fundamental right. After all, when you’ve lost everything else, things like that can be very important.

Heel Pricks. A short thought

Yes. It is a pity that Guthrie cards will be destroyed. Yes, there is potentially valuable data held on them. But there is also a fundamental right to Personal Data Privacy under EU Treaties and there is that pesky thing called the Data Protection Acts/Data Protection Directive.

The DPC investigated the issue of heel prick cards. They negotiated with the HSE to determine a “best fit” solution that struck an uneasy and far from ideal balance between the desire to have a genetic databank and the need to have specific explicit informed consent for the processing of sensitive personal data in that way.

Comments today from Minister Kathleen Lynch that this needs to be looked at again and efforts are underway to prevent the destruction are baffling. “Efforts are underway”? So the Department is actively working to undermine the role and independence of the DPC? Is new legislation being prepared with retrospective effect that will be passed by the end of next week? Is data being anonymised (tricky with genetic data)? Is the HSE going to do a big push to get people to request the cards relating to them and/or their children from the HSE?

What needs to be looked at in my view is the culture and ethos around managing personal data that pervades in some areas of political and civil society. For that is where the root and origin of this dismal scenario lies. (A scenario, as an aside, that has faced private sector organisations with their customer databases on a number of occasions: not obtained lawfully, not obtained for that purpose, destroy it.)

The reason the issue arises with the heel prick tests is that consent was obtained for the processing of blood samples for a very specific purpose – testing for metabolic disorders in neonatal contexts. The consent obtained was for that purpose. No other. Sensitive personal data must be processed on the basis of specific, explicit informed consent. There appears to have been no plan for maintaining the data associated with those samples or for managing the process of obtaining consent for future purposes (or enacting legislation to allow for future purposes without requiring consent). There appears to have been an assumption that these samples could be retained ad infinitum and used for purposes undisclosed, unimagined, or unavailable at the time the samples were originally taken. This was, and is, not the case under Data Protection law.

As an Information Quality practitioner, I am bemused by the optimism that is expressed that the heel prick data would be useable in all cases. What processes are in place to link the data on the Guthrie card to an identifiable individual? Do those processes take account of the person moving house, their parents marrying, divorcing, remarrying (and the name changes that ensue), or the family emigrating? If the Information Governance in the HSE is such that this is rock solid data then great. I’m running a conference and want good case studies… call me!

The quality of information angle is important as it raises a second Data Protection headache – adequacy of information. If the information associated with the actual blood tests is not accurate, up to date, and adequate then a further two principles of the Data Protection Acts come into play.

Yes the destruction of Guthrie cards is a problem (but as Ireland has been doing Guthrie tests since 1966 it has happened before. Yes it is an unsatisfactory situation (but one that appears unavoidable given the legal situation). But the root cause is not the Data Protection Acts or the DPC. The root cause is a failure in how we (as a society) think about information and its life cycle, particularly in Government and Public sector organisations. A root cause is a failure of governance and government to understand the legal, ethical, and practical trade offs that are required when processing personal data, particularly sensitive personal data. A root cause is the failure to anticipate the issues and identify potential solutions before a crisis.

RTE reports that the Minister describes the 12% awareness level of the right to have cards returned to families rather than destroyed as “telling”. But what does it tell us? Does it tell us people don’t care? Or does it tell us that the HSE awareness campaign was ineffective? I would go with the latter. Frankly the lack of information has been stunning and, as always in Irish life, there is now a moral panic in the fortnight before the deadline. And again, the governance of how we communicate about information and information rights is called into question here.

I haven’t seen any data on how often the Guthrie card data was being used for research purposes. I’m sure some exists somewhere. Those arguing for the records to be saved should go beyond anecdote and rhetoric and present some evidence of just how useful this resource has been. We need to move beyond sound-bite and get down to some evidence based data science and evidence driven policy making.

Storing the samples takes physical and economic resource, two things in short supply in the HSE. Storing them ad infinitum without purpose “just in case” creates legal issues. Legally the purpose for which the samples was originally taken has expired. By giving families the option of having the cards returned to them the HSE creates the opportunity for specific informed consent to future testing, while removing the other data protection compliance duties for those records from themselves.

The choice is not an easy one but the Data Protection mantra is “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. And just because you have to doesn’t mean it is easy or without pain. But by clearly drawing a line in the sand between non-compliant and compliant practices the HSE avoids the risk of future processing being challenged either to the DPC or the ECJ (after all, this is a fundamental human right to data privacy we are dealing with).

Hard cases make bad laws is the old saying. However the corollary is that often good laws lead to hard cases where society needs to accept errors of the past, take short term pain, identify medium and long term solutions, and move on in a compliant and valid manner.

Rather than weeping and gnashing teeth over a decision that is done and past it would behove the Minister and our elected representatives more to focus their efforts on ensuring that the correct governance structures, mind-sets, knowledge, training, and philosophy are developed and put in place to ensure we never find ourselves faced with an unsatisfactory choice arising from a failure to govern an information asset.

Some food for thought

The Official Twitter Account of the Irish EU Presidency (@eu2013ie) tweeted earlier today about recipes.

That gave me a little food for thought given the subject matter I posted on yesterday.

  1. Ireland will hold the Presidency of the EU in the first half of 2013.
  2. Part of what we will be tasked with is guiding the Data Protection Regulation through the final stages of ratification
  3. Viviane Reding has been very vocal about the role Ireland will play and the importance of strengthening enforcement of rights to Personal Data Privacy in the EU. 
  4. World wide media  and our European peers will be looking at Ireland and our approach to Data Protection.

In that context I would hope that any Dáil Committee would have the importance of the right to Privacy (as enshrined in EU Treaties and manifested by our current Data Protection Acts and the forthcoming Data Protection Regulation) when reviewing legislation and regulation around Social Media.

While I don’t think that the recipes being tweeted about by the @eu2013ie account contained any Chinese recipes, the news today about changes in the Chinese Social Media regulatory environment are disturbing in the context of the rights to privacy and free speech. One interesting point about China’s approach to control of on-line comment from the FT article linked to above is this:

It has also tried to strengthen its grip on users with periodical pushes for real name registration. But so far, these attempts have been unsuccessful in confirming the identity of most of China’s more than 500m web users

Food for thought.

Calling The Tweet Police

[updated 2012-12-27@17:11 to reflect comments from TJ McIntyre] [edited introductory paragraphs at 20:34 2012-12-27 reflecting feedback from Aoife below, fair comment made and responded to] [Note: This has been posted today because RTE are doing a thing about “social media regulation” which means that levers are being pulled that need to be red flagged] I drafted this post on Christmas Eve morning 2012. The original post had the introduction below. One person (out of the 600+ who have read this post by now, a few hours after I posted it) felt that the opening was too hyperbolic. Perhaps it was, so I decided to tweak it. I did hope I wouldn’t have to publish the piece I’d drafted. But the fact that the opening item on the 6pm news on the 27th of December 2012 was a piece about the Chairman of the Dáil communications committee announcing that the committee would meet in the New Year to discuss regulating ‘Social Media’ meant that my misgivings about the approach of the Irish political classes to the use of Social Media were not entirely misplaced. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve morning 2012. I dearly hope I never have to publish it. If I do it will be because the Government I helped elect will have abandoned any pretence of being a constitutional democracy and will have instead revealed its true insular, isolated, clientelist nature in a manner that will disgust and appal people. And this will be all the more disturbing as the Government will have used real personal tragedies to justify this abandonment of principles. But I am not hopeful. If this post sees the light of day something will have gone horribly wrong with the Irish Body Politick. That the content of the media coverage today echoed the expectation I set out in the paragraphs below for the rationale of any review of regulation (“cyber bullying” and other misuses/abuses of social media) suggests that, perhaps, this post might contribute a useful counterpoint to a perspective that appears to dominate the mainstream.

The Issue

I fully expect within the early weeks of 2013 for the Irish Government to propose regulations requiring that users of social media be required to tweet or blog in an identifiable way. No more anonymous tweets, no more anonymous blogs. The stated reason will be to “combat cyber bullying”. Sean Sherlock TD is quoted in today’s Irish Times (2012/12/24) calling for action on anonymous posting. This is ominous. Others quoted in that article are calling for “support systems” to help TDs deal with the “venom” being targeted at them via social media. While the support systems suggested are to be welcomed, the categorisation of expressions of opinion by citizens as “venom” is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, disingenuous. What seems to be in pipeline to be proposed to stem this tide is almost inevitably going to be some form of requirement that people verify their identity in some way in blog posts or tweets. Remove the veil of anonymity, the reasoning will go, and this venom will go away. The “keyboard warriors” will put their weapons beyond use and step in line with the process of government and being governed. The fact that politicians are lumping Facebook in with these other platforms illustrates the tenuous grasp many have on the facts – Facebook already requires “real identity”  policy, which raises problems about what your real identity is and has been flagged as potentially in breach of EU law by at least one German Data Protection Authority.

Why this is a bad idea

In Orwell’s 1984 a shadowy figure of the State ultimately breaks the protagonist Smith, requiring him to give up on love and private intimacy and resubmit to a surveillance culture in which the Thought Police monitor the populace and the media tells everyone it is necessary to protect against the “enemy”. That shadowy figure is called O’Brien. My passion for data privacy is a reaction to my namesake, and from that perspective I can see three reasons why this is A VERY BAD IDEA.

Bad Idea Reason #1  – What is Identity?

Requiring people to post comments, write blogs, or tweet under their own identity creates a clear and public link between the public persona and the private individual. The supporters of any such proposal will argue that this is a deterrent to people making harsh or abusive comments. However, in a fair society that respects fundamental rights, it is important to think through who else might be impacted by a “real names” policy. There are quite a number of examples of this, the most famous recent example being Salman Rushdie having his Facebook account suspended because it didn’t think he was him. Identity is a complex and multifaceted thing. We all, to borrow a phrase from T.S Eliot, “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. The GeekFeminism Wiki has an excellent list of scenarios where your “real name” might not be the name you are really known by. In Ireland, people who would be affected by a “real names” policy in social comment would include:

  • Public servants who cannot comment publicly on government policy but may be affected by it
  • Survivors of abuse
  • People with mental health concerns or problems
  • Whistleblowers
  • Celebrities.

A real names policy would require that every time Bono tweets or blogs about Ireland, Irishness, or Irish Government policies he would have to do it under the name Paul David Hewson. And who the heck would be interested in an opinion expressed by Paul Crossan about epilepsy?

Bad Idea Reason #2 – How will it work exactly?

It is one thing to say that you want people to post comments using their identity, but it is another thing entirely to get a system in place that actually works. Identity is a “flexible” thing, as outlined above. Facebook require evidence of your identity in the form of personal ID (passport/driver’s license). They have the resources to process that data securely. But they still get it wrong (see the Salman Rushdie example cited above). If verifiable identities are required for comment, then how exactly would a small personal blog that is used to exercise my mental muscles outside of my work persona (domestic use) be expected to handle the overhead of verifying the identity of commenters in a verifiable way. Would I be expected to get people to register with the blog and provide evidence of ID? Would I be able to get a grant to help implement secure processes to obtain and process copies of passports and drivers licenses? Or will the State just require that I shut up shop? Would the State indemnify me if this blog was compromised and data held on it about the identity of others was stolen? Every few years we used to hear similar calls about the registration of mobile phones. The argument in favour of registration usually goes: “If they have to register, bad people won’t use these phones”.  That argument is bunkum. I’ve written about it at length here but the short form:

  1. If people have to register and provide ID for verification, they will use fake ID (as is happening in China with their mobile phone registration requirement)
  2. If the law is to register, strangely it is unlikely that that would bother criminals by definition they find the law an inconvenience rather than a barrier.
  3. If people are required to register without some form of identity verification then you’ll wind up with Mr D. Duck of  The Pond owning a lot of phones. A pseudonym, so no more identifiable than a picture of an egg.

Applying this to a proposal for a “real names” policy for tweets, blogs, comments and other social media discourse and we wind up with a situation where, to achieve the objective that the proposers of non-anonymised comment seem to be seeking, would result in a disproportionate burden being placed on those of us who engage in debate on-line. Even then it would not be fool proof. And a non-verified identity is nothing more than another pseudonym. I could, for example, use the name of another person when “registering” to comment. Or a fictional duck. It is worth noting that South Korea is abandoning its “Real Names” policy for social media for a variety of reasons.

Bad Idea Reason #3  –  The logical principle must be technology neutral

Blogging, tweeting, social media… these are all technologies for self-expression and social interaction that barely existed five years ago and where unheard in the mainstream of a decade ago. Therefore any regulation that requires identification of commenters must be framed in such a way as to anticipate new technologies or new applications of existing technology or risk near instant obsolescence. Therefore the regulation would need to be technology neutral. Which means that, in order to avoid it being discriminatory and to ensure it has the fullest possible effect, it would need to be applicable to other forms of technology.

When debating this on Twitter with Harry McGee on the 22nd December I asked him if he saw a difference between Twitter and a malicious phone call or an anonymous pamphlet. His response was they were, in his opinion, the same. So, if tweets are the same as anonymous pamphlets, the logical extension of needing to be able to identify the tweeter is a need to be able to identify the pamphleteer. The State would want to be able to identify the author of a published thought. We have seen this before. In fact, the seeing of it before is one of the reasons that the EU has a right to personal Data Privacy (introduced in the Lisbon Treaty) and why the strictest interpretations of Data Protection laws in Europe tend to be in Germany and former Soviet bloc countries. Have we managed to forget that, within the lifetime of people now in their mid thirties, governments in Eastern Europe required people to register their typewriters with the State so the State could identify the writers of letters, plays, pamphlets and other communications? As Mikko Hypponen of F-Secure (one of the world’s leading experts on information security) says in one of his many presentations:

In the 1980s in the communist Eastern Germany, if you owned a typewriter, you had to register it with the government. You had to register a sample sheet of text out of the typewriter. And this was done so the government could track where text was coming from. If they found a paper which had the wrong kind of thought, they could track down who created that thought. And we in the West couldn’t understand how anybody could do this, how much this would restrict freedom of speech. We would never do that in our own countries. But today in 2011, if you go and buy a color laser printer from any major laser printer manufacturer and print a page, that page will end up having slight yellow dots printed on every single page in a pattern which makes the page unique to you and to your printer. This is happening to us today. And nobody seems to be making a fuss about it. And this is an example of the ways that our own governments are using technology against us, the citizens.

So, if we can uniquely identify the typewriter or the printer shouldn’t we take the logical step and have the owner register it, just like in communist East Germany in the 1980s? So that when a pamphlet or letter is sent that has the wrong kind of thought the relevant authorities can take action and immediately stop that kind of thing. But sure, we’d never do that in our own country. We’d just ask everyone register their identity before blogging or tweeting. Totally different. The Government would never propose the creation of a register of printer owners. Would they? {update: here’s an article from outlining their take (from the US) on why “real name” policies and regulation are a bad idea }

Use the laws we have, don’t create crazy new ones

But something must be done!! This is an intolerable thing, this “cyberbullying”. And indeed it is. But let’s not get hung up on the label. It is not “cyberbullying”. That is bullying by a fictional race from the TV show Dr. Who.

What this is is inappropriate and/or malicious use of communications networks and technologies. It is no different from a smear poster campaign, a co-ordinated letter writing campaign, or a malicious calling campaign. And there are already laws a-plenty to combat this in a manner that is proportionate with the curtailment of freedoms of speech and rights to privacy. Bluntly: If your conduct on-line amounts to a criminal act or defamation it is almost inevitable that your illusion of privacy will evaporate once the blow-torch of appropriate and existing laws are applied.

The power to pierce privacy in this case comes from the pursuit of a criminal investigation of what are deemed under the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 as serious offences. Any social media provider will provide information about users where a serious offence is being investigated. It’s in their terms and conditions (see Twitter’s here – Section 8). This would allow the identification of the IP address used at a date and time for transmitting a message via twitter and could be used to compel a telecommunications provider to provide the name of the account holder and/or the location of the device at the time and at present. But it is done under a clear system of checks and balances. And it would be focussed just on the people who had done a bold thing that was complained about, not placing a burden on society as a whole just in case someone might do something naughty. I would ask the Government to use the laws we already have. Update them. Join them up. Standardise and future proof their application. But do so in a technology neutral way that isn’t swiping at flies while ignoring larger concerns. And please don’t mandate non-anonymised comment – it simply doesn’t work.

The Risk

When proposing any course of action it is advisable to prepare for the unintended consequence. With this chatter of requiring comment to be identifiable comes the risk that, should it happen, the social media data of Irish citizens will become either more valuable (because marketers will be able to mine the “big data” more efficiently) or less valuable (because we switch off and there is less data to meaningfully mine). There is also the risk that our Government will, yet again, send a signal to the world that it just doesn’t understand On-Line, for all its bleating about a “Knowledge Economy”. And at that point we may become less attractive to the foreign new media firms who are setting up base here. Like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.


Requiring identifiable comment is a dumb move and a silly non-solution to a non-problem. The problem is not anonymity. The problem is actually how we evolve our laws and culture to embrace new communication channels. We have always had anonymous comment or pseudonymous dispute. Satire thrives on it, art embraces it, and literature often lives through it. Just because every genius, wit, and idiot now has a printing press with a global reach does not mean we need to lock down the printing presses. It didn’t work in Stasi East Germany or other Soviet Bloc dictatorships. Other solutions, such as working the laws we already have, are preferable and are more likely to work. Educating users of social media that there are still social standards of acceptable behaviour is also a key part of the solution.

Tagging the typewriters is NEVER the answer in a democracy. This O Brien stands firmly against this particular Thought Crime.

The Anti-Choice Robodialler–some thoughts

The Intro

Robodialling, autodialling, power dialling. Call it what you will. It is the use of computers and computer telephony integration to save the tired fingers of call centre workers and turn the job into a battery farm of talk… pause.. talk.

I know. I’ve worked with them. Heck, I designed the backend data management and reporting processes for one of the first big installations of one in Ireland back in the late 1990s. It was fun.

I also learned a lot about how they work and some of the technical limitations and capabilities of them. Such as the lag that can happen when there is no agent available to take a call so the person dialled hears noise and static. Or the fact that you can trigger the dump of a recorded message either as a broadcast or based on the machine’s interpretation of whether it’s hit an answering machine or not (at least on the snazzy RoboDial9000 we were putting in).

And I also remember the grizzled CRM and Direct Marketing consultant who was helping advise on best practice for using it telling the management team:

“Don’t. For the love of all that is sacred don’t. Doing that shit just gets our industry a really bad name because it freaks people out.”

Today – Fallout and penalties

Today I’m trying to reengage brain after a night on twitter helping to advise people how to register their complaints about the use of a Robodialler to push anti-choice messages to unsuspecting households. The DPC is now getting up to 3 complaints every 5 minutes on this.

Each complaint could carry a €5000 penalty on summary conviction. That is the tricky bit as this requires evidence gathering etc. This could take time. But the DPC has time available to them to conduct investigations and bring prosecutions. And if it is a case that this is an individual acting on their own behalf, the DPC has the powers to enter domestic premises to conduct searches and can levy a significant personal penalty of up to €50,000.

Oh.. and if the dialler is in the UK the maximum penalty per offence is £500k and the DPC and ICO do talk to each other. A lot. They’re co-hosting an event in Newry at the end of the month.

The unintended consequences

My thoughts now turn to the unexpected consequences this robodialling will have.

  1. All future market research or polling that may be done on this topic by phone is borked and broken. People will be suspicious, even when the nice man from the polling agency ticks all the boxes and explains who they are etc.
  2. There will be a wave of “false positive” complaints to the DPC arising from any phone polling on this topic (for the reason outlined above). This will tax the resources of the DPC, and will tax the resources of market research and polling organisations as they work to deal with complaints and investigations etc.

The impact of this on debate is that the published results of any polling will be distorted and will be potentially unreliable as barometers of public opinion. Face to face field work results will likely be less tainted by the robodialler experience but will be a LOT more expensive and time consuming for media and other organisations to run. So there may be less of them.

The dialler incident will tie up resources in the ODPC that would otherwise be spent dealing with the wide range of complaints they get every day, driving investigations, conducting audits, and managing the large number of existing open cases they are working through.

22 staff. In total. 25% of their staff regularly being tied up dealing with Facebook alone. With a mandate that covers ANY non-domestic processing of personal data. (by comparison the Financial Services Regulatory Authority has three times the number of staff at Director level alone).

Another consequence of this is that we might get a little debate about how this is no different from the placard waving and leaflet shoving of the Anti-choice camp historically. But it is different. Disturbingly different. If I am walking on the street with my daughter and a leaflet or picture is thrust in her face, I can turn away, walk another route, or some other strategy to help shield my daughter from disturbing imagery.

Last night I read of parents whose small children or young tweenagers answered the call and listened and have been upset by the calls.

The wrap up

I worked in a telemarketing business early in my career. Even then (nearly 2 decades ago) we were cautious about ringing people in the evenings. It is an invasion of the private family time of individuals, an abrupt interruption of what Louis Brandeis called “the right to be left alone”. No recorded messages were left. Human interaction was key to ensuring we only continued to encroach where welcomed, and requests to be removed from lists were treated respectfully. “Do Not Call in Evenings” was a call outcome code in the robodialler that prevented that number ever being called again (at least in theory when the software worked correctly and the teams did their jobs right).

To tread on that right to be left alone to ram a pre-recorded message into the ears of an unsuspecting and unidentified audience belies an arrogance and ignorance on the part of those who thought it would be a good idea to choose to commit a criminal offence to push their message, ignoring both the law and the choices people had made with respect to their own personal data privacy (a fundamental right of all EU citizens).


If you have received a call from a robodialler with an automated message or where the caller did not identify themselves to you you should register a complaint with the Data Protection Commissioner

Investigations can be complex and it may be impossible to verify who to prosecute, but by registering the complaint you can help build the case against people who are acting illegally.

Try to find the number that called you (in your phone’s call log). Note the date and time of the call. If the number is blocked, include that fact in your complaint. While numbers are blocked from being presented to you, the phone network will still know who called you and having the date and time you received the call will potentially enable ComReg and the Data Protection Commissioner to request data from the telecommunications companies to trace calling numbers. They may subsequently require you to give consent to accessing your phone records as part of their investigation but only to identify the number that phoned you on that date/time from the network call logs that are generated.