Some thoughts on privacy in UK and Europe

With apologies to

I was asked by a colleague to put together some notes on privacy, government and young people – I thought’d I’d share the results, if only to prove that this blog is still alive! I’d point out that though I do have a general knowledge of data protection and compliance issues, I’m neither a lawyer, nor a specialist in privacy.

Data protection and the so-called “Safe Harbor”

My personal opinion is that the EU (or at least the part that is concerned to protect citizens’ data) is generally a force for good, compared to most governments at least, eg in trying to force the UK government to tighten up on the current Data Protection legislation, and planning for improvements in the Data Protection directive [PDF] – thought there might be some issues with the implementing the details.

I think some of the biggest risks come from US-based private companies like Google and Facebook  – as the recent case with Google Street View wifi-collection shows, the Safe Harbour rules are not enforced in any meaningful way by the USA, which gives them a commercial advantage at the expense of (a) EU-based competitors and (b) ordinary citizens.

For instance: compare the different approaches taken by Google and Opera to the behavioural data that they’re collecting.

Surveillance society

Behind any organisation that collects data for storage in the USA, there is the Patriot Act which gives the security services access to the data they collect. I think that even RIPA, the UK law that governs how police access data  does not go as far as that.  You can find some relevant stories here.

This story from May 2009 gives the current UK context: “The Government has rejected claims that it is conducting too much surveillance on citizens and has said that it has got the balance between surveillance and liberty right. It has rejected many recommendations recently made by the House of Lords.”  The government has changed since then, and there is a now little more emphasis on privacy, but how long that will last is an interesting question.


One other story that needs to be included: ‘Surveillance state still expanding

Information commissioner Christopher Graham is pressing ministers for new privacy safeguards in the wake of a report by the Surveillance Studies Network (SSN) that suggests moves towards a surveillance society are expanding and intensifying. (Guardian Kable, 12 November)

Young people

Although it may be that initially there was not so much of an awareness, young people are becoming more aware of issues around privacy, and how to manage it as a LSE study shows (UK commentary here), so it is not true to say that young people don’t care as much about privacy.

Danah Boyd writes well on young peoples’ perspective of the internet, from an American perspective. She gives one recent story that gives an example of how far young people can go to control Facebook privacy if they have to.

Finally, Edinburgh Napier coordinates the HUWY project ( – and you might find some of the discussion on youth perspectives on the risks of the internet there – Google translate may be needed. Tell me if you want to find out  more about this project.

In conclusion, you can find more links and stories on the subject I’ve noted on Delicious covering

No apologies for using the Register as the source for a lot of this information!


About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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2 Responses to Some thoughts on privacy in UK and Europe

  1. It’s interesting that these protections have not been forthcoming earlier on in the legislative process. In Australia, there were comprehensive protections in relation to the privacy of individuals and what information the organisations could retain or even collect in the first place quite an early stage in comparison to what is that in the United Kingdom. in Australia, there are the National privacy principles under the privacy act which was originally enacted in 1988. This legislation prevented the collection of sensitive information like healthcare records, tax file numbers and other pieces of information that could potentially be used to harm individual or even steal their identity.

  2. Hi, thanks for Australian perspective. The UK’s original Data Protection Act was in 1984 – 4 years earlier than Australia – to implement the first EU Directive on the subject.

    Your comment certainly helps highlight how exceptional the USA is – 25 years down the line, the USA is almost unique in not having legislated for general protection of privacy for its own citizens.

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