A triptych to read and reflect on in the same breath…
On July 21, 2015, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that making a database of public tax records accessible digitally was illegal because it violated the right to privacy . The judges wrote that publishing an individual’s (already public) data on an online service could not be considered journalism, since no journalistic comment was written alongside it.
This ruling is part of a wider trend of judges limiting what we can do with data online. A few days later, a court of Cologne, Germany, addressed data dumps. In this case, the German state sued a local newspaper that published leaked documents from the ministry of Defense related to the war in Afghanistan. The documents had been published in full so that users could highlight the most interesting lines. The ministry sued on copyright grounds and the judges agreed, arguing that the journalists should have selected some excerpts from the documents to make their point and that publishing the data in its entirety was not necessary .
These two rulings assume that journalism must take the form of a person collecting information then writing an article from it. It was true in the previous century but fails to account for current journalistic practices.
It is our view that if organisations collect information from the internet and use it in a way that’s unfair, they could still breach the data protection principles even though the information was obtained from a publicly available source. It is particularly important that organisations should consider the data protection implications if they are planning to use analytics to make automated decisions that could have a direct effect on individuals.
[A news article suggests] that the party has been scouring the internet to find social media profiles of people who have registered. Secondly, it seems to suggest that for people not to have clearly identifiable social media profiles is suspicious.
The first idea, that it’s ‘OK’ to scour the net for social media profiles, then analyse them in detail is one that is all too common. ‘It’s in the public, so it’s fair game’ is the essential argument – but it relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of privacy, and of the way that people behave.
Collecting “public” data and processing or analysing it may bring the actions of the processor into the scope of the Data Protection Act. Currently, the Act affords protections to to journalists. But if these protections are eroded, it weakens the ability of journalists to use these powerful investigatory tools.