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Open data initiatives must factor in privacy rights

Open data initiatives must factor in privacy rights, UN expert warns

NEW YORK (26 October 2018) - A UN human rights expert has urged the state and private sectors to review and discontinue some of the ways they currently share information stored on computer networks – known as open data initiatives – saying people’s privacy was being put at serious risk.

“Data is and will remain a key economic asset, like capital and labour. Similarly, it needs proper management and respect for lawful obligations,” the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joe Cannataci, said to the UN General Assembly.

“Some data practices by public and private sectors are leading to distrust among individuals and communities” he said. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica revelations, for example, have increased unwillingness of users to provide personal information.

Cannataci pointed to the rising risks of large-scale privacy breaches from re-identification of data sets published online under open data initiatives, citing as an example, the 2016 online release from a 10 percent sample of Australians who had claimed national health care benefits. The dataset affecting about 2.9 million Australians was reportedly downloaded 1,500 times before being taken offline following reports of re-identification, initially of doctors, and later, of patients.

Poor data practices lead individuals to avoid public services, or to provide incomplete or inaccurate information, which undermines data quality (including the accuracy of machine-learning algorithms), and potentially sees poor societal outcomes, the Special Rapporteur said.

The Special Rapporteur said that the impact on privacy of releasing any government information has to be carefully assessed before making it public, and completely avoided if the information can be associated to particular individuals. Reporting on a consultation held in Australia in mid 2018, the Special Rapporteur said the release of government information as unit level data, and of personal data unable to be disclosed safely in aggregate form, should cease.

Cannataci advocated for Indigenous Data Sovereignty calling on governments and corporations to recognise the sovereignty of indigenous peoples over data.

The Special Rapporteur is recommending an international framework with consistent data protections and rules for transnational access, for example in law enforcement, or for multi-national corporations managing data flows internally. In the interim all UN member States should ratify data protection Convention 108+ using CETS223*, and immediately implement safeguards for personal data collected for surveillance and other national security purposes. UN Member states outside the EU are encouraged to also incorporate the safeguards found in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation which are not mandatory under Convention 108+.

Cannataci said governments must review the adequacy of legal and policy frameworks on artificial intelligence, and prevent erosion of human rights emerging from the use of algorithms, automated processing and machine learning.

The Special Rapporteur invited Member States to participate in an online consultation on gender perspectives of the right to privacy in the digital era. Submissions are open till 30 November 2018.

Note: * Protocol amending the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data.


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