There is much talk about the importance of free movement of people and goods between Brexit Britain and the EU. More important than either of these, however, is the free movement of data. This is much more essential than we realise. Even something as simple as buying milk at a supermarket often relies on our data being put through an EU-based payment processor. This transaction would be illegal under EU law in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
No-deal would even have implications beyond Europe. Currently the UK and the US share citizens' data under the "EU-US Privacy Shield." Losing this would mean that even US-based companies would not share data with us. These issues are sadly absent from discussions about Brexit planning, despite their potential to shut down not only British business trading, but everyday life.
Data is underestimated as a valuable asset - and a source of power. Brexit is starting to wake us up to this, as many Remainers lobby the government to release communications between the prime minister and his team in an effort to increase transparency.
But data is much more important than party politics, or even Brexit negotiations. The quantity and quality of data that any one a person, company, state, or even terrorist group, has is an accurate predictor of how much power they wield over us.
They say knowledge is power. Big data is the ultimate information source. Cases like that of Cambridge Analytica - a small British-based company who, with indirect Russian banking, manipulated Facebook’s lax regulations to acquire big data and use it to sway the Brexit result - are just the tip of the iceberg.
If this crisis was caused by the manipulation of data, it may reach its crescendo because of it too. Controlling the flow of data around the world is essential not only to commercial competitiveness, but national security.
The coming data wars will show that governments, as well as non-state actors, are becoming aware of this. Big data allows them to know things about an opponent’s population that traditionally only their own government would know. Large amounts of data allow assumptions and analyses to be formed that would in the past have perhaps even be classified information.
It is because of this that rigid regulatory frameworks, like GDPR within the EU, or the EU-US Privacy Shield between the EU and the US, have been so comprehensively adopted. Regulators know what it would mean if a large batch of consumer data revealing the needs, wants, and desires of our societies was acquired by the Kremlin, for example.
The flow and control of money can be sidestepped through cross-border money laundering. Contraband goods can be acquired through smuggling. And people can be moved across frontiers through illegal immigration. Just like those factors shape societies and economies, data must also be controlled and protected.
This is why, in the event of a no-deal Brexit where Britain becomes a non-EU state with no agreement regulating data sharing between EU countries and the UK, I am certain that Brussels will insist on strict enforcement of its data regime. It is a risk no world power can afford to take.
This will mean that any transaction or communication that requires data sharing between a British and an EU-based firm or asset will become illegal. Many payment processors, for example, are based in Luxembourg for tax reasons. This could have wide-ranging consequences, even for transactions that occur to be within the UK. Similarly, the loss of EU-US data agreements would mean that many small businesses would no longer legally be allowed to use major web hosting and email delivery platforms, due to them being US-based.
This makes it all the more concerning that data policy has been sidelined in the Brexit discussions, despite colleagues in the industry telling me that the British government has spent almost a billion pounds on consultants from big firms like Bain and McKinsey to plan for no-deal.
Although some larger companies have pre-emptively included standard contractual clauses and appointed EU representatives that can allow data sharing to continue after no-deal, the vast majority that I have come into contact with haven’t.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues on his path to Brexit at any cost, it is imperative that business leaders resist the culture of denial I have witnessed up close over the last three years. If the British civil service is unwilling (or unable) to plan for no-deal and its cascading consequences, at least British businesses can.
Three years after the referendum vote, I feel that we Brits still don’t know quite what we voted for - especially when it comes to our data. It’s time we all read Brexit’s terms and conditions - and updated our own.
- Jamal Ahmed is the founder of Kazient Privacy Experts
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