The Deletion Problem

by | Apr 19, 2020 | ICT4D |

The other day I was slow roasting vegetables. I hadn’t set an alarm as I’d just take them out after my meeting was finished. The meeting went longer than expected and I ended up getting distracted with another task. When I remembered the vegetables were barely recognisable.

Last night, my son and I went for a walk. In the stream, he found willow branches floating which were a distinct yellow colour. He wanted to show Mum. Upon arriving home, he flung off his boots and coat, which he said he’d put away later and ran upstairs to find his Mum. Later, after putting him to bed, I came downstairs to find his coat still on the table and boots strewn across the floor.

Maybe the forgetfulness and distraction runs in the family. Or perhaps it’s human. But here’s the thing, if you invited to your house today at 4pm for ice cream, neither my son nor I would forget that!

And this leads me to our digital lives. We collect data about ourselves and others. Our organisations (governments, companies, NGOs) are full of data. And most of the data about people that we hold, we are supposed to delete after a set period of time. We even ‘hand over our hearts’ promise that we will. We have policies and laws to ensure that we do.

And yet we don’t.

We don’t because policies and laws are changeable. We don’t because we are incredibly good at justifying the potential use of the data in the future. And sometimes we don’t because we forget.

This is one of the reasons I think Ethics Boards or Data Trusts can provide value. They sit slightly independent of us, of our organisations. AND they have some ‘teeth’. Without teeth, they will be useless. They must be able to hold us to account. They can help us work out purpose, permitted use, access, and when the data will be deleted. That is their function.

In many ways, they become the alarm I forgot to set when slow roasting my veg. They help us avoid making charcoal, when we were going for succulence. But they go beyond alarm and reminding, they enforce action.

Photo by Ahmad Ossayli


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