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A New Social Contract in the Digital Age

For knowledge managers, library, and IT staff the value of data is nothing new. Their focus is on curating information and protecting sensitive data from those who would use it for unethical or questionable purposes. For many there is a growing fear about data, specifically their personal data, who is accessing it and for what purpose.

In late 2017, Kevin Keith asked a group of young people whether they trusted Facebook, Google, or the government. He also asked whether they had heard of Cambridge Analytica. Most it seemed had not. When he explained what Cambridge Analytica does, the attendees reacted with alarm. Cambridge Analytica is not the only company using personal data for financial gain.

Networking platforms such as Facebook do not currently charge a “joining” fee. Public search engines are free to use. The Cambridge Analytica’s data research scandal published by major news outlets in mid-March 2018 is clear evidence there is a cost.

The scale of the trade-off for those using “free” social networking and public search engines is becoming clear. It is compounding people’s growing fear of data. Aviv Ovadya and his predictions of the proliferation of “fake news” and data manipulation discussed here, was an early warning. The potential for unscrupulous use of personal data is now a major cause for concern.

Ovadya not only predicted a fake news crisis prior to the 2016 US elections, he argued “Our platformed and algorithmically optimized world is vulnerable – to propaganda, to misinformation, to dark targeted advertising from foreign governments – so much so that it threatens to undermine a cornerstone of human discourse: the credibility of fact”.

The problem of how to identify fake news is not straightforward. There are those who argue that facts are dependent on the reader’s view or belief system. However, that is a discussion for another time.

Ovadya identifies some technology products poised to muddy the waters between what is fake and what is actually real and available to hostile actors. However, Keith argues technology is not the problem. He contends governments should put in place regulations that keep up with the technology.

In 2011, a Wired article identified that social media platform users are the product, not the customer. While governments have been aware of the problem, they argue it is difficult to keep up with changes in technology. Whatever the reason, governments have been slow or reluctant to formulate strong policies regarding the use of personal data.

Keith debunks the excuse that keeping up is difficult. He uses the example of the technological advances that saw the rapid transformation of transport in the early 20th century. The change from horse and carriage to the motor car, for example, saw governments swiftly apply rules and regulations. He contends that in this digital age there is a need for a new social contract to protect data from those who would use it as a commodity. That is a government responsibility.

Securing data is a “horses for courses” issue for knowledge management staff. They need to consider what type of data they manage and whether it is a common good or not. For example, much of the internally generated data legal library staff manage has little research or common good application. Most of the data they manage is therefore tightly secured.

For those working in the health space, for example, securing personal patient data is paramount. However, statistical or research information that can be garnered from health records has a common good. The balancing act for health librarians, medical, and IT staff is to ensure sensitive data is well secured while making other data available.

With some exceptions, information has a common good, and it should be accessible. Nonetheless it is also subject to rules and regulations regarding its use.

Knowledge managers, librarians, and IT staff have long established and applied “contracts” to the data they collate, organise, and manage. Applying those “contracts” has always been an ongoing focus. Copyright laws manage information usage. Applying up-to-date security to their systems ensures sensitive and personal data is secured according to their requirements. Library and IT staff are aware of how information is vulnerable to misuse. It guides how they manage and protect data under their custodianship.

The “contracts” are not static. They are subject to changes as applicable. Many of those rules are a legal or business requirement. For knowledge managers, research and IT staff, data in all its variations is something to be valued and shared, or secured as the case may be.

As Keith argues, it is time for everyone to view data as something valuable and “only a new social contract that encompasses digital will enable us to fulfil its potential and expand the definition of us, strengthen democracy, and ultimately improve lives”. Knowledge managers and library staff have always known that.