I’m Justin Brookman. I’m a director of privacy and technology policy at Consumers Union.
How would you define Transparency?
I think of transparency and notices are two slightly different things. Notice is what consumers are put right from their face and they’re forced to see it. Transparency is more about observability something that can be detected but most actually will not notice. I think transparency is the stuff that happens in the background that a lot of folks just don’t know about. They’re probably concerned about it, but they don’t have the ability to actually see. I think it’s really important that there are researchers who are out there, who are trying to do that work and try to find out you know what sort of information is being collected about people. They’re the ones to take advantage of the transparency when that’s gone and that means there’s no accountability for a lot of practices.
What are the last trends related to Data Transparency?
One of the biggest trends and I’m concerned about is that there’s more and more data collection but it’s actually harder and harder to watch it. The web is an open platform, people know how it works and it’s actually a lot easier to see when a lot of the data collection happens. For these other products, Internet of Things devices, there’s no real clear interface to know when and how is collecting information about you. Also, another concern I have is that there’s a lot more server-to-server communication, even on the web. Normally when your web browser is communicating with a third party the web browser initiates the interaction itself. A lot of times now the web browser sends to one third party then that third party sends off a bunch of information from its own computer so it’s completely unobservable to the researcher or to person waiting at home. So, I’m concerned that a lot of traditional transparency that would be watchable and could be used to hold people to account as being a lot harder to do that.
Do users care about data transparency?
Some users care about it, but they care more about privacy than about transparency. They don’t necessarily want to know that third parties are collecting information. I think users don’t want to have to make all the choices themselves. They really want their privacy protected which means either they can make quick easy choices that apply to all their stuff or that are false or reasonable, but I think transparency is helpful because by and large a lot of the right to false aren’t in place and a lot of the times people don’t have any way of knowing what’s going on. So, transparency is a way for the research community and people who care about this stuff to hold people accountable for what they do.
What do you think could be the most significant challenges and developments in the field of personal data transparency online?
A lot of the challenges come from the fact that more and more data is being collected by devices that are hard to measure and there’s some concern that I have that companies may be doing work to actively circumvent transparency measures. So you’ve seen in the past companies like Volkswagen and Uber that when they think they’re being watched actually changed their practices. As devices become smarter they maybe have more sense of who is watching them they may be able to monitor their behaviour in dynamic ways that make it just harder and harder to actually know what’s going on for most people.
Whenever we start to rate a smart product, we test it based on the traditional attributes, we also take a look at the data collection practices and make some assessments about the privacy and security as well.
Which are your current projects involving data privacy and transparency?
The project that I’m working on the most right now is a Consumer Reports finding ways to actually rate products for privacy and security. Consumer Reports traditionally rates lots of home devices, cars, products that people buy. Traditionally they rated products based on like how well it works, how often do they breakdown. For television how bright is the screen and how good are the controls. Increasingly, these sorts of devices have the ability to collect information and also predict potentially the vulnerable security threats. Consumer Reports is looking to find ways to write the value for those aspects as well. Right now, we’re looking at a bunch of Smart TVs, testing the disclosures, the notices, the transparency and finding out what actually is collected and thrown back home and trying to make normative assessments which ones do a better job which ones don’t. Whenever we start to rate a smart product, we’ll test it based on the traditional attributes that I already said, we’ll also take a look at the data collection practices what people understand and make some assessments about the privacy and security as well.
What do you think of the data transparency lab?
I think it’s really important in my current job where I’m trying to find tools to evaluate privacy and security. Also, in my prior job as a regulator we’re looking at applications and other smart home devices trying to figure out what they do, both for research reports but also potential enforcement cases that these companies are collecting data that maybe they shouldn’t or maybe misrepresenting the folks what they’re actually doing. so, we rely on a lot of these tools to actually investigate and do the forensic work to see what’s going on. So actually, as a lawyer who’s cannot make these things on my own I’m definitely reliant on these sorts of tools and my day to day job. I think my job is two for one doing the ratings to making determinations about which products do a better or worst job with the data, with the security and the privacy. The other side is the policy side. We probably need stronger legal protections over a personal information. In the United States we haven’t had overall privacy legislation. I think is something important that we’d like to see, and we’re really interested to see how the GDPR gets enforced in Europe. Obviously, Europe’s had privacy laws since at least 1995, but still we haven’t seen the practices evolved by the way that they should. I think the policy side as well as transparency is important but transparency can’t solve everything and so I think policy and law needs to play an important role as well.