It ends with Google

On Tuesday I spent the morning at the Ship2B Foundation in Barcelona. Ship2B brings together social change organisations – charities and social enterprises – with grant-making foundations, companies, family offices and venture philanthropists. The social change organisations work on themes in ‘Laboratories’ where the foundations, companies and philanthropists provide advice, contacts and money to accelerate their growth, to ‘scale.’

I sat in on a presentation by the Water4Life lab group. Here were a range of projects on water use and water management. One project was using data from Aigües de Barcelona, the Barcelona water utility, to pinpoint areas of poverty in the city based on how much water each household was using. The project was analysing mass data gathered for one purpose (water supply bills) and using it for another (mapping and understanding poverty).

Which led me to think about the Information Commissioner’s current focus on public domain information collected for one purpose, being used for another.

The ICO have told charities that “publicly available data…is not fair game.” It is not enough to claim that you have a “legitimate interest” in using data from public registers such as Companies House, and news and press reports; you “must balance this against the prejudice to the rights and freedoms of individuals.”

The team at Factary is working hard to ensure we are fully compliant with this new emphasis from the ICO. So this week we contacted one of our suppliers to check that their data was fully compliant. They told us that “…in light of the new GDPR legislation we are currently in discussions…” with suppliers. This is a leading data house that provides data drawn from Companies House. Their end supplier is Companies House.

The Supply Chain

Factary – and any prospect researcher who uses UK companies information from one of the large data houses – is in a supply chain that starts at Companies House. At some point, someone is going to knock on the door of Companies House and ask “are you compliant?”

Before they made their data freely available to anyone, Companies House earned £8.7m in a year, selling it to data users. I have been registered at Companies House as a director since 1990. I have never, ever, had a letter from them asking me if it’s OK to publish my name and address in their register, and then to sell that data on to the big data houses.

I was never asked, because Companies House had a duty in law to gather my personal information and publish it. They turned my private information into public information. They promoted my private information “to power a great range of products” and to encourage “even more people to explore and use [the] data.”

Companies House represents the contradictions at the heart of the legislation that ICO is forced to apply. Data from Companies House that we all believed to be publicly available, and in which we all had a legitimate interest, is no longer “fair game.”

So who is the biggest supplier of publicly available data?

Google, of course.

A Little Light Googling

Every day, millions of people in Britain type the name of a person – a celebrity, a footballer, a friend, a company owner – into Google. Google returns thousands or millions of results; “Theresa May” returns 24 million publicly available results this morning, ranging from press reports to biographic reference sites.

I did not ask the Prime Minister if I might check her name in Google. I am certainly prejudicing her right to privacy by putting her name into Google, because thanks to Google I can see all sorts of scurrilous, unrepeatable stuff about our glorious leader.

Google is a massive re-purposer of publicly available data. Data gathered for one purpose (selling newspapers, or adverts in scurrilous blogs) is re-purposed every single day by Google on behalf of its millions of users.

This is where the contradictions in UK privacy legislation are crystallised. This is where the ICO is heading in its search for the right balance between legitimate interest and the rights and freedoms of individuals.

I want to be a fly on the wall when the ICO knock on the door of number 6, Pancras Square, London N1, the UK headquarters of Google. That battle – between the ICO and Google – will be one to watch.

2 comments on “It ends with Google

  1. Interesting read Chris, couple of thoughts;

    – I would presume Water4Life is using this mass data in a generally anonymous way – without the personal information attached?

    – With regards to politicians / celebrities data, I think there would be aspects around “public interest” that would legitimise this, however when it is down to an individual where there is no public interest, they can actually get listings removed from searches under EU DP laws – https://support.google.com/legal/contact/lr_eudpa?product=websearch

  2. I’d be fascinated to see any argument in this area that starts with a section of the Data Protection Act or the GDPR that suggests that the ICO’s approach to publicly available data is incorrect. I don’t think one exists, but it would be interesting to see someone who doesn’t agree with the ICO starting from the right place.

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