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Openness and privacy

lklOpenness and privacy conflict, says Jonathan Cowie

A recent Geoscientist editorial (23.8, p5) warns against anonymity, and urges that 'nobody should ever write anything to which they would not be content to put their name – or their postnominals'.  All well and good: openness and transparency eschew vested interests.

However, openness does not mean that individual's rights as to personal data privacy should be compromised. The problem is that sometimes the two conflict.

Science has its share of controversy.  There are numerous examples from old chestnuts such as the age of the Earth, as revealed through geology vs. the fundamentalist religious view, through to climate scepticism, animal experimentation, fracking impacts etc.   Mainly whenever a scientist speaks out they do so under employers' (university or a private company) aegis.  However sometimes we may have something to say with which our employer would not want to be associated. (Whistle-blowing being an extreme instance.)  What to do?  Well the obvious answer is to speak out as an individual.  But should one reveal ones personal data?  Remember, for example, that there are hate-mongers out there with strong views on a range of scientific issues, including those already mentioned.

Now, this not a hypothetical concern: I have worked with scientists who have been threatened in their homes!

A recent example of how this issue is being ignored comes with the new mechanism for submitting evidence being trialled by the House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee in their consultation on 'horizon scanning'.  Having undertaken a number of horizon-scanning exercises in my career I thought I might respond.  But I am semi-retired (no employer).  Formerly I could have responded to the Committee, given my home address/phone/e-mail but asked that these be kept confidential.  This would be done with my contact details being on a spread sheet in a committee secretariat's PC.  However, with the new system you are obliged to enter your address, phone number etc., online.  Here, there is a privacy policy.  This reveals the Select Committees are using Google's services to process your data and that Google reserves the right to store and analyse your own personal data.  In short both the committee and the respondent have lost control over your data.

Another example is your fundamental rights.  Suppose someone puts your home address on-line, what happens if you become associated with a controversy and want to insulate your private life, nearest and dearest?  You may be surprised that you actually have no absolute rights for your details taken down! While there is a provision in the Data Protection Act, the governmentally appointed ombudsman will _not_ support you by contacting the website; you must request, giving a reason, the website and if they do not remove your details then you (not the ombudsman) have to take them to court.

We need to have protocols that handle our personal data with surgical precision as much as they respect openness and transparency. Learned societies might engage in this debate on behalf of their members (privacy) and profession (openness). The Select Committees' protocols and the forthcoming European Commission Data Protection regulation, that may or may not feature a 'right to be forgotten', are two places to start.

Jonathan Cowie works in science communication and lives somewhere loosely associated with the East Midlands.  He can be precisely found on-line at His latest book out (2013) from Cambridge U. Press (reviewed in September's Geoscientist) and has at public meetings attracted the ire of climate sceptics.

Postscript: With regards to the Select Committee example, the author raised concerns with them some weeks prior to writing this article. However only after this piece was submitted did he hear from them. The good news is that the concerns are being taken seriously.  Meanwhile European Commission Data Protection issues continue to be debated and warrant (your) attention.