Why the protection of data is about so much more than a law

Back in 2006, the Council of Europe decided to launch a Data Protection Day to be marked on 28 January each year.

Outside of Europe it’s often known as ‘Privacy Day’, but I prefer to talk of data protection because looking after data is about so much more than keeping it private.

A day like this gives those of us who work in this area an opportunity to talk about why data protection matters and why we care.

More importantly, it’s an opportunity to expand these conversations beyond those of us working in the field because there’s not a single person on these islands that is not impacted by the data-driven world that we find ourselves in.

We’re living through a revolution. Getting up in the morning, taking the kids to school or the dog for a walk, going to work, paying our bills; it doesn’t really feel very revolutionary, does it?

But as is so often the case, it’s only when we look back that we truly appreciate the dramatic changes that have occurred and the speed at which they have done so.

The digital era continues to impact almost every part of our lives, including transforming the workplace and wider economy. And let’s not forget – we’re only at the beginning.

There’s even more and faster change ahead. At the heart of this revolution sits data, and lots of it. There are some eye-watering statistics about how many quintillion bytes of data are produced across the world every day. It’s easy to brush over such unfathomable figures, but I would encourage you not to.

Because data matters.

It matters from an economic perspective; it’s certainly the oil in the global machine of finance, trade, retail, etc. But it also matters from our own, personal perspectives. We’re increasingly reliant on, impacted by, and consumers of, vast data sets.

These data sets collect and create enormous amounts of information about us every second of every day. From your online browsing habits and location, to your selfies, messages and shopping choices, the list goes on.

Increasingly, we’re starting to better understand the environmental cost of the vast amount of data we’re all producing.

The language may have an ephemeral feel, but data in the cloud is very real and requires a great deal of energy that, in turn, has a huge environmental impact. When you upload your holiday photos, are you giving that a second thought?

When we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where democratic rights and freedoms are so embedded, it can be easy to take those things for granted.

If you, like so many others recently, have been following the Post Office scandal, you may well have had cause to reflect on how easy it is for things to go wrong – and for people with power to act unethically and without integrity. When those in power act in this way, it’s the people without power that suffer the most.

Laws are there for a reason. They ensure individuals are protected, power doesn’t go unchecked, and there is redress if things go wrong. But by the same token, we need more than a following of the rules. We also need ethical behaviour.

I believe that businesses, economies, and societies can thrive when good regulation, ethical leadership, and cultural engagement align. Compliance can no longer be seen or approached as a tick box exercise. It must be part of a holistic, comprehensive, and enlightened approach.

When we understand that the way we treat data is the way we treat people, it starts to take on a different feel. Data protection, as its heart, is about people.

All organisations, no matter their size or sector, rely on people. Whether they’re colleagues, clients, or contacts, people are always at the centre.

Successful organisations look after those people. We can all thrive, in both our professional and personal lives, when our relationships are built on trust, integrity, and accountability.

Data protection often gets a bad press, but that’s largely because it’s been misunderstood or badly applied.

I hope we can start to encourage a more mature conversation about data, the role it plays in our lives, and the importance of good protection and broader ethical engagement. Stepping back a little to get a broader perspective on it can help reposition data protection in our minds.

Getting it right is good for us, our businesses, our economy, and our islands.

So, on this Data Protection Day, you may not wake up feeling particularly inclined to celebrate. But nonetheless, I’d like to encourage you to take a moment to think about the data in your own life and the impact it has on each of us, as well as on our planet.

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