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Commissioner’s US diary - part two John Edwards
21 April 2017


This year’s opening keynote speeches on day two of the International Association of Privacy Professionals Global Privacy Summit in Washington DC were by Tristan Harris and JD Vance.

Mr Harris is the author of How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind - from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist and the founder of Time Well Spent - and Mr Vance is the author of Hillbilly Elegy which became a best seller on the back of last year’s American presidential election outcome.

Mr Harris spoke of the competition for our attention which thousands of engineers are working tirelessly to capture and hold on their web sites and apps. “You like outrage? Here, have a video of a United passenger being dragged off a plane, then we’ll auto-play the new Pepsi ad for you.”

These technologies are designed to interact directly with our cerebral cortex and cut out any volition to interrupt, while redirecting and holding us to their content. Every time we are interrupted by a text, Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter alert, it takes us 23 minutes to regain the attention we were paying to our work or non-tech activity.

Happily, according to Mr Harris, it doesn’t have to be that way but we have to care, and want to develop and use the technologies, techniques and behaviours necessary to reclaim control over our attention.

Sometimes described as a “Trump Whisperer”, JD Vance was annoyingly insistent on referring to that vague and ill-defined bogey of the rust belt, “the elites”, of which we in the audience were evidently members.

Privacy means something to those good, honest, downtrodden folks, it’s just that it means something a bit different from what it means to us elites. This was, of course, complete nonsense. The examples Mr Vance gave - the mistrust of the long and complicated forms by which banks collected personal information and the sense of wonder and creepiness at the algorithmic delivery of targeted ads - equally underlie the suspicion and discomfort many in the so-called elites have for the digital world. This is by no means the exclusive domain of six-fingered, duelling banjo-playing, Appalachian hillbillies (if you want to get down to stereotypes and name calling).

11am–12pm - A Bridge to Europe: Ireland’s Growing Role in the Transatlantic Economy

After the plenaries, participants can choose from a dazzling variety of topics and sessions. I was very interested to see a conversation with Dara Murphy, the Irish Minister for Data Protection (one of only two such Ministers in the European Union).

Ireland takes a whole of government approach to data issues. Famously welcoming to data driven enterprises such as Facebook which has its European headquarters there, the policy has spawned a local indigenous economy of digital innovation.

The Irish government recognises the importance of a properly regulated data environment in order to support data innovation and enterprise. But the government’s support has been more than just talk. Mr Murphy spoke very supportively of Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, and funding for the Commissioner’s office has quadrupled over the last few years.

4.30pm - Whose Eye is on the Five Eyes?

Later in the afternoon, I was joined on a panel by US Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board member Elisebeth Collins, the Canadian Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien, and the Head of International Strategy and Intelligence at the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, Steve Wood. The discussion topic, moderated by Bird & Bird associate, Gabe Maldoff, was “Whose Eye is on the Five Eyes: An Intro to International Intelligence Oversight Bodies”.

There have been law changes in all Five Eyes jurisdictions in recent years, and these were compared and contrasted. Despite recent improvements in the legal framework for, and transparency of the intelligence alliance, there remains suspicion about what information is shared, and how it is used.

6pm – ICDPPC executive committee meeting

The executive committee of the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners tries to meet in person a couple of times a year, and as most members were present in Washington, we were able to convene to discuss progress towards the Hong Kong conference in September and other business.

Image credit: The Lincoln Memorial, Washington, by Gary Skidmore.



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