Business leaders demand greater data transparency

News by Doug Drinkwater

Chief execs from some of the world's biggest companies spoke in depth on online privacy at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week.

In light of the growing information on the surveillance carried out by the NSA and GCHQ, online privacy was one of the bigger topics discussed at the annual World Economic Forum, and it drew heated comments from some of the world's most famous business people.

In different panels, both AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson and BT CEO Gavin Patterson suggested that the days of expecting total privacy, at least in an online context, are almost certainly over.

“I don't think we as a society want 100 percent privacy,” said Stephenson. “But I think the debate is right.” Patterson also joined in and, when asked if 100 percent online privacy could be expected, added: “I think when it comes down to it people recognise that they have to give up some of their privacy to be protected, I don't think it will be ever be zero."

Elsewhere at the event, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Salesforce chief exec Marc Bienoff also spoke at length on privacy, and suggested that it's now about managing expectations and ensuring transparency.

"When you go through security at the airport, when you sign up for a driver's license, you know exactly what you're disclosing to the government and you know what you get in exchange," said Mayer. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff added: "If everybody saw the detail, they would probably be completely comfortable. How can you trust something you don't know?"

New laws encouraged

Patterson though –  like other infosec experts in France earlier this week – said that the furore over Edward Snowden's revelations should result in clearer data protection laws.

Asked if he wanted more laws, Patterson responded: “Exactly, making it clear. It's just too murky at the moment. It needs to be transparent and [there] needs to be clear guidelines about what's acceptable and what isn't.”

“The legislation has to catch up. This is a challenge for many different parts of our business models, it's often several years before,” he added. “It's not fit for purpose today. Everybody recognises the internet plays a role in protecting us and we've got to make sure it's not intrusive and also protects the rights to the individual. I don't think the legislation has managed to keep up".

Mayer also joined the chorus and urged greater data transparency.

"What's murky about some of what is happing today is people don't necessary know what data is being collected and what it is being used for.”

"2014 will be a tipping point. It will change everyone's daily routines very fundamentally." Mayer stressed that Yahoo customers own their own data.

Responding to the topic at the event, security and privacy lawyer Stewart Room said that the topic has become about “reasonable expectations”.

“When people talk about privacy in a percentage sense, they may be misunderstanding the nature of the right to privacy,” he told

“The right to privacy isn't about absolutes or percentages, it's about reasonable expectations.  And what is reasonable depends on the circumstances and facts.”

Room added that the expectations for privacy is likely to vary to some degree, and said that some businesses may also have more rights than others to hold onto customer data.

“In the telecom sector, if the business head says that customers cannot expect their calls to be at risk of potential interception by the police say, then he is right, because European human rights laws allows this in certain, limited circumstances.  If the business head says that customers cannot expect their communications to be safe from all prying eyes, then he is wrong.  It's all a question of fact and degree”. 

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