We’ve been talking about the Panama Papers at the Open Data Institute. This is the second part of a blog that came from discussions with some of the lovely team there.

The first part looked at the Panama Papers through the lens of data infrastructure. This, the second part, looks at it through the lens of personal data and privacy.

The Panama Papers are not open data. They contain leaked, or hacked, information some of which has been placed in the public domain, but it is clearly an important story and one where data plays a vital role and where openness can help improve trust.

In the UK the release has led to renewed stories about the personal tax affairs of the Prime Minister’s family. The opposition leader has pledged to publish details of how much he pays in tax and called for the Prime Minister to do the same. As well as debating tax and open government the Panama Papers should also make us debate personal data and understand that both privacy and openness create trust.

Personal data, privacy and openness

Whilst open government data often focuses on non-personal data some societies have chosen to openly publish personal data about their politicians. Just as we expect high standards of openness from our governments we also expect it from the politicians who represent us. People believe that open data about politicians will improve trust, reduce corruption and help voters make better decisions about who represents them.

In saying that politicians should openly publish this data we are saying that they should have less privacy than the rest of us, that the benefits to society of openly publishing politician’s personal data is sufficient to override this part of their human right to privacy. Society would not be saying that politicians should publish all of their personal data but that they should publish more personal data than other people.

In the USA presidential candidates are expected to release their medical records and tax returns. In the UK we have become used to seeing details of politician’s expenses whilst in the run up to the 2015 general election a group of activists started collecting and publishing politician’s CVs. You can even find the CVs of the candidates for the next UN secretary general online. Whilst we may not all get a vote for the UN secretary general, having access to information about the candidates helps open up the process and improves the debate about the decisions being made by our representatives.

Perhaps the calls for publication of politician’s tax returns is a logical next step for the UK, and maybe medical records will follow, but these steps should include an informed debate that goes deeper than party political arguments may allow.

We should recognise that data is not always used in the way we expect or want. Publishing data can lead to more informed debate but sometimes it can be a challenge. In the UK the release of MP’s expenses highlighted many issues where politicians fell far below the standards that voters expected or wanted, but there were also cases where behaviour that was perhaps reasonable was highlighted as incorrect. Some politicians claim that this will drive good people out of politics. This is a bad argument. This is not closed or shared data where we can control its use and stop abuse. This is data that society has decided should be open and that anyone can use for any purpose. Politicians should expect their open data to be used in ways they may not want or expect but rebut these cases by honestly and simply explaining what the data contains, or doesn’t. Publishing the data openly allows this debate to happen in the open. An open and honest debate can improve trust in politicians.

Second, whilst we frequently, and mistakenly think, that all personal data is “my” data this debate would need to recognise that personal data frequently concerns more than one person. My tax and medical records refer to my wife, myself and the institutions that we deal with. My tax records refer to joint savings accounts. My medical records would show that my wife and I had a couple of, unsuccessful, rounds of IVF treatments a few years ago (*). If we want people to understand and control how their data is shared then would I need to gain consent from my wife before releasing the records? Would being unable to release tax or medical records prevent people from becoming a, successful, politician (**)?

Third, the debate will need to recognise that data is not always trustworthy. How are we to know if a tax record is accurate and has not been altered? How are we to know if the record is complete or that a politician is not due to receive funds in the future or has not benefited from illegal practices in the past?

Systems will only ever be as trustworthy as the data that is put into them but, perhaps, new technology, like blockchains, could assist? If we are to explore distributed ledger technology for tracking personal financial transactions across the globe then we will need to be wary of the challenges of putting personal data in blockchains and that the design patterns for privacy on a blockchain are complex and subtle. It would be interesting to end up in a transparent society because of a design flaw, rather than by choice.

If technology does become part of the solution to tax avoidance then we also will need to consider whether we are designing something for the whole world, or something that accepts that different people, societies and cultures make their own choices and that those choices change over time. The need to tackle tax avoidance is worldwide. Only a few societies hold the same standards of openness for citizens as they do for politicians, yet any citizen can choose to try and become a politician at a point during their lives. Whilst different cultures still make different moral choices any move for greater transparency for politicians is likely to need to allow for different people, societies and cultures to choose their own mix of privacy and openness for personal data.

Whilst the party political arguments will continue we still have an opportunity for a debate that covers these points and the many others that the Panama Papers raise. Privacy is a human right. Like any human right it needs a vigorous and informed debate if we are to sacrifice some of it. We should be having a more informed debate about data.

The Panama Papers can lead to better data infrastructure for anti-corruption and a more informed debate about data

The Panama Papers highlight the urgent need to make progress on getting people and organisations to pay a fair amount of tax.

In the first part of this blog I looked at the papers through the lens of data infrastructure and said that the next steps in building a more reliable and open data infrastructure for anti-corruption should include a global register of beneficial ownership. The register will improve our efforts to combat tax avoidance and other forms of corruption.

It should also include an environment where politicians are more open with the people they represent and where we have a wider and more informed debate about the role of data in our society.

The debate about how much personal data should be open to stop corruption could be complex and nuanced, but it will be useful. The choices we make about data are vital to our future. We need better, more informed and wider debate about data and how we bring together privacy and openness.

(*) Yes, of course my wife gave consent to me to publish that line in this blog but I didn’t ask my doctor or hospital. Should I have?

(**) To be very clear, there are many, many other things that would stop me being a politician. My own complete and utter lack of desire or capability to be a politician being the most significant ones 🙂