An Open Letter to the Information Commissioner

Dear Mr Graham

It must be tough being the Information Commissioner today. This morning’s newspaper will be a crumpled mess on your breakfast table after you read more of the revealing allegations from Edward Snowden. The Government that pays you to keep our private stuff private has also been paying the wages of the spooks at GCHQ who are, apparently, listening in to everything we send or hear.

It’s a classic State job creation scheme; GCHQ dig the holes and you cover them over.

This is all horribly relevant to prospect research, because we researchers live in the legal and moral minefield of personal privacy. Snowden’s allegations change the moral game.

If we are to believe Mr Snowden then the Government has been merrily breaking the spirit of the law. By plugging a USB into the transatlantic fibre-optic cable they are listening to much of what we say and do, most of it private. They must be storing terabytes of personal stuff including an email to my son in the USA about his shopping habits, or the note I sent a friend about her cooking (it was delicious, Martha). In amongst the banalities there will be stuff about race, politics, religion, trades unions, health, sex and crime – the “sensitive personal data” that the European Data Directive has tried to keep properly private. This is all being gathered into the State apparatus for the “greater good.”

Imagine that I were to include a little sensitive personal data in a prospect profile, in contravention of the European Data Directive. For example that a prospect was reported to have had cancer, or malaria, or to have a prosthetic limb. I would be breaking the law, but – given that the State must be collecting this stuff too, could you really, morally, claim, Mr Graham, that I had done wrong?

And then there are the Terrible Twins – Google and Facebook. These two, according to Mr Snowden, have been knowingly handing over to the US Government our search habits, our locations, our friends and our connections.

So if I were to gather some personal stuff about a prospect from her Facebook page and pop it into a profile, could you really, morally claim, Mr Graham, that I had done wrong?

To rub salt in your wounds these companies have been doing this while manipulating our Governments’ tax system in their favour. You, Mr Graham, have been doubly duped. You have (massively) failed to protect our personal data. And your 2012-13 grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Justice was cut…because your paymasters have not been taxing the same Terrible Twins.

The moral justification that allows the State to gather and hold this personal information is the “greater good” of public security; the State collects this data to protect us citizens from the bad guys. A greater good that, if Mr Snowden’s allegations are correct, overrides our laws.

But I have a greater “greater good.” My greater, greater good is to raise the money to feed the starving, to send them to school, to build their hospitals and to show them the beauty of the arts. The greater, greater good of philanthropy.

Does my greater, greater good also override the law?

So if I were to break the law by failing to protect a prospect’s personal data, just as you have failed to protect ours, could you really, morally, claim Mr Graham that I had done wrong?

Prospect researchers protect prospects’ personal information because we are ethical people. We believe that it is right that personal privacy should be protected. We work on the moral and ethical frontier of personal data, taking decisions every day about whether to pass on information to our fundraising colleagues, or to press “Delete.” Yes, the law provides some framework, but it is our moral and ethical belief which provides the foundation.

We will continue to do that – to guard personal information, to respect privacy. But the Snowden allegations have undermined the whole legal framework for data protection. They have made your job impossible.

It must be very tough, being the Information Commissioner today.

Yours sincerely

Chris Carnie