Interview with Nico van Eijk & Edo Roos Lindgreen
In October 2018, the University of Amsterdam will organise the third edition of its successful Amsterdam Privacy Conference (APC2018). Launched in 2012, the APC has built a strong following for bringing together some of the world's leading thinkers and professionals in the field of privacy. Throughout the four-day symposium, guests will have the opportunity to take part in panel discussions and parallel sessions on various privacy-related topics, or attend keynotes by distinguished speakers.
This year’s edition will once again be open to both an academic and non-academic public.
To formally kick-off the upcoming APC and also celebrate Data Privacy Day on 28 January, this month’s UvA in the Spotlight features a double interview with UvA researchers Edo Roos Lindgreen and Nico van Eijk, professors of Data Science in Auditing and Information Law respectively, who will organise the conference together with Beate Roessler, professor of Ethics and Bart van der Sloot, now assistant professor at Tilburg Law School.
Why should people care about privacy and data privacy in particular?
Van Eijk: Privacy is a typical fundamental right. Every individual needs her or his own protected environment where they can fully develop themselves. In is most primary form it answers a basic human need. But it also serves other social needs, such as the need and the right to be autonomous and to make informed decisions. It is an essential part of our individual and collective make-up. As such, it is a broad subject that encompasses various facets of everyday life. The Amsterdam Privacy Conference shares this broad definition of privacy and views it as a subject that cannot be restricted to just one domain like law but rather lends itself to several branching disciplines.
Do you think there is growing public awareness about data privacy?
Van Eijk: I personally believe that experts and pundits tend to underestimate most people’s knowledge about privacy issues. There are clear signs that the general level of awareness is increasing, but more needs to be done, especially in terms of helping people to understand how privacy-related issues also impact on them personally. This is something we as experts and academics can and must help to improve.
Roos Lindgreen: I am not sure I entirely agree. A curious aspect about privacy is that most people, at least at first glance, seem to agree about its importance. Controlled experiments have shown though that people are very quick to relinquish their privacy for a relatively small economic gain. This phenomenon seems to fit in with what is known as construal level theory, which in lay terms posits that people are prone to place excessive focus on short-term advantage at the expense of long-term interests.
Van Eijk: Also true. Something abstract like the right to privacy only becomes tangible once it affects you personally, for example when your photos are distributed and posted online without your consent.
A recurring public debate is on how to strike the proper balance between the right to privacy and the legitimate needs of intelligence agencies to access data in the fight against crime and terrorism. What are your thoughts on this?
Roos Lindgreen: This debate sometimes seems like a zero-sum game, a matter of an inch given and a mile taken. Give security agencies too much freedom and you open the door to an encroachment on civil liberties; give them too little and you hinder them in performing a vital duty. At the moment, there is school of thought that argues that the mining and collection of large amounts of data are actually inefficient and ineffective. Instead, security agencies are better off identifying the data they need beforehand and then doing a targeted search. In this sense, the debate on more or less access might actually already be irrelevant.
Van Eijk: Dutch computer scientist prof. Bart Jacobs uses the adage ‘select while you collect’. This is particularly true for security agencies and governments, who have to work against extreme timeframes. There is no point in collecting massive amounts of data if most of it is useless or irrelevant. A good data set is 10 times more valuable than mountains of data. This realisation is starting to dawn on all stakeholders.
Is this an example of how a stubborn privacy issue can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?
Van Eijk: Absolutely. Another example of how interdisciplinarity can make a meaningful contribution is in the realm of what is known as privacy by design. This refers to an approach to systems engineering in which privacy is taken into account at all levels of the production process. Instead of just letting consumers sign a waiver or tick a disclaimer, developers are now actively thinking about ways to safeguard privacy when producing a product or service. I recently attended a conference where experts from various fields, including app developers and designers, actively discussed some of the ways consumers can be given more autonomy and control over their own privacy. This is the direction we need to move in. At the moment, the debate is still being dominated by legal experts and policymakers.
Roos Lindgreen: As privacy scholar Helen Nissenbaum writes, privacy is not a binary concept – it is a system of norms, values, agreements and assumptions that has grown over the centuries. That was until technology appeared on the horizon and cut through this delicate balance and replaced it with a new reality, one we still need grow accustomed to. Our ability to successfully understand and wind our way through this complex maze requires a myriad of perspectives and expertise working in conjunction.
Which is why interdisciplinarity is a hallmark of the APC?
Van Eijk: The conference benefits greatly from the UvA’s strength as a research-intensive university where researchers are actively encouraged to work across disciplinary boundaries. Previous editions have shown just how much can be gained by bringing together a diverse group of experts and scholars – ranging from computer scientists to legal scholars, philosophers to web designers – to engage in discussion. This is why the conference is thematic and consists of small, intimate discussions on a specific privacy theme alongside keynotes by leading experts from the field.
Roos Lindgreen: Since our first conference in 2009, the APC has grown into one of the leading privacy conferences in Europe, and perhaps the world. This success is partly the result of the UvA’s immense academic depth and partly because of our ability to produce real answers to actual privacy issues through a combination of dialogue and discussion involving a broader public. I can’t wait to see results we achieve this year.