The information technology sector is rapidly changing, with smartphones becoming even smarter and location tracking becoming the norm. Officials are attempting to keep up with the advances, to make sure that issues such as privacy and protection of personal data are not forgotten. But any rules or safeguards can become quickly outdated.
Right On spoke to researchers in Cyprus who maintain that privacy is considered in the early stages of developing new technology. But of course, making sure that those good intentions are carried through to when products go on the market is another challenge. And could those privacy features be discarded or disabled at a later stage, long after products have left the laboratories?
Marios Dikaiakos, Head of the Computer Science Department at the University of Cyprus, told Euronews’ Seamus Kearney: “One of the basic problems arises from the constant technological changes, which make it hard to regulate issues related to civilian privacy. Recently, for example – and these are predictions for the near future – both social networks and mobile telephoning and communication via so-called smart phones will be very important and will expand constantly. In the context of these technologies, protecting privacy and even regulating the protection of privacy is becoming even more difficult.”
He added: “I don’t think there can be one solution because the sector is constantly developing and it is very difficult to predict what will happen in the next two, three or five years. What is very important is that regulatory authorities work very closely together with both the academic and research communities and also with the companies that provide these kinds of services.”
“Regulations, and the regulatory context, have to be able to constantly evolve in a way that allows, on the one hand, the development of new business in these new fields and, on the other, to make it easier for civilians to preserve their privacy and avoid dangers that arise from these new technologies.”
But what about those who say it is too late to police the web and new technology? Dikaiakos said: “There is some truth in these reservations but that doesn’t mean that we should not be trying to regulate the privacy of civilians and people correctly. It’s not that easy, and it’s not easy to achieve without ways that will destroy entrepreneurship and the introduction of new technologies.”
“But it is still the early stages in terms of finding the ‘golden solution’, which will allow for both the correct protection of civilian privacy – and the ability for civilians to be aware of where their private data is located and who is processing it – but also the ability to have development in the fields of technology and the economy, which are also very important for general economic growth.”
Georgios Larkou, a PhD student at the University of Cyprus, is working on new smartphone technology. He insisted that privacy protection can be integrated into designs in the early stages.
“In a world of the smartphone we could simply turn off our mobile phone, or any other device, and we wouldn’t have a privacy or any other concern,” he said. “Of course this is not something that we want.“
“So during our research we want to have the opportunity to work on innovative systems that take the protection of privacy into consideration, even before we begin designing the system. When we design the algorithms we take into consideration privacy protection. It is one of our first priorities even before we begin creating the system. “
Nikolas Loulloudes, another PhD student, is carrying out research into new information networks and location tracking, particularly via computers and other devices that collect data in vehicles. Again, the questions about the technology are obvious: how will we be able to control who knows what about our movements, where we go, how we get there, what happens on the way; can drivers choose not to emit the data? Loulloudes also maintains that privacy issues are thought about in the research stage.
“Of course privacy protection in new technologies, and especially network technologies – technologies like vehicle networking – will be very important especially now that these technologies are being developed. This will allow technology users to be assured that they are safe when sharing data with other users and also it will enable the user to use the technology more freely.
“As researchers, and as individuals that develop these technologies, protecting privacy will certainly remain high on our agenda for any future research and development,” he said.
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that researchers do consider privacy issues when they are developing technological advances, but whether this is something that can be found in every university and research lab is another matter. There does seem to be some logic, though, in the view that privacy safeguards should not be something that is only considered when new technology and products appear on the market, and usually by regulators. Some say we must push harder to have a culture where those protections are inherent in a product and automatically integrated during the conception stage.