Data age

data tree illustrationWe live in an era of data. The world is generating 1.7 million billion bytes of data every minute and the total amount of global data is expected to grow 40% year on year for the next decade (PDF). In 2003 scientists declared the mapping of the human genome complete. It took over 10 years and cost $1billion – today it takes mere days and can be done at a fraction of the cost.

Making the most of the data revolution will be key to future scientific and economic progress. Unlocking the value of data by improving the way that we collect, analyse and use data has the potential to improve lives across a multitude of areas, ranging from business to health, and from tackling climate change to aiding civic engagement. However, its potential for public benefit must be balanced against the need for data to be used intelligently and with respect for individuals’ privacy.

Getting regulation right

The UK Data Protection Act was transposed into UK law following the 1995 European Data Protection Directive. This was at a time before wide-spread use of internet and smartphones. In 2012, recognising the pace of technological change, the European Commission proposed a comprehensive reform of EU data protection rules including a new Data Protection Regulation that would update and harmonise these rules across the EU.

The draft regulation is currently going through the EU legislative process. During this, the European Parliament has proposed changes to the Commission’s text. These changes have raised concerns for researchers across Europe that the Regulation could risk restricting the use of personal data for research which could prevent much vital health research. For example, researchers currently use these data to better understand how to prevent and treat conditions such as cancer, diabetes and dementia. The final details of the regulation are now being negotiated and the research community has come together to highlight the importance of data in research and articulate their concerns in a joint statement, which the Society supports.

The Society considers that datasets should be managed according to a system of proportionate governance. Personal data should only be shared if it is necessary for research with the potential for high public value and should be proportionate to the particular needs of a research project. It should also draw on consent, authorisation and safe havens – secure sites for databases containing sensitive personal data that can only be accessed by authorised researchers – as appropriate.

Remaining challenges

The speed and complexity of technological progress makes it difficult to ensure that regulation keeps pace with the job of protecting data, and does not unintentionally prevent future research that is yet to be imagined.

The Society is keen to support an outcome in the current Data Protection Regulation negotiation that can ensure that excellent research continues across Europe to improve the lives of its citizens whilst still protecting their privacy.

However, many challenges remain that are unlikely to be resolved in the current European negotiations. The new legislation covers personal data but not anonymised data, which are data that have had information that can identify persons removed or replaced with a code. The assumption is that anonymisation is a foolproof way to protect personal identity. However, there have been examples of reidentification from anonymised data and computer scientists have long pointed out the flaws of relying on anonymisation to protect an individual’s privacy.

As our ability to mine and link data improves, our understanding of what counts as ‘personal data’ will be challenged.  Use of smartphones, wearable technology and the internet of things will result in more data being generated. As we are able to use more and different types of data to identify individuals – at what point do all data become personal data?

There is also a risk of leaving the public behind with lack of information and failed efforts to earn trust; and it is clear that a better understanding of the role of consent and ethical governance is needed to ensure the continuation of cutting edge research which respects the principles of privacy.

These are problems that will require attention, and questions that the Society will continue to explore.