[BigDataSur] The Challenge of Decolonizing Big Data through Citizen Data Audits [1/3]

Author: Katherine Reilly, Simon Fraser University, School of Communication

A curious thing happened in Europe after the creation of the GDPR. A whole new wave of data audit companies came into existence to service companies that use personal data. This is because, under the GDPR, private companies must audit their personal data management practices. An entire industry emerged around this requirement. If you enter “GDPR data audit” into Google, you’ll discover article after article covering topics like “the 7 habits of highly effective data managers” and “a checklist for personal data audits.”

Corporate data audits are central to the personal data protection frameworks that have emerged in the past few years. But among citizen groups, and in the community, data audits are very little discussed. The word “audit” is just not very sexy. It brings to mind green eyeshades, piles of ledgers, and a judge-y disposition. Also, audits seem like they might be a tool of datafication and domination. If data colonization “encloses the very substance of life” (Halkort), then wouldn’t data auditing play into these processes?

In these three blog posts, I suggest that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, we precisely need to develop the field of citizen data audits, because they offer us an indispensable tool for the decolonization of big data. The posts look at how audits contribute to upholding our current data regimes, an early attempt to realize a citizen data audit in Peru, and emerging alternative approaches. The series of the following blogposts will be published the coming weeks:

  1. The Current Reality of Personal Data Audits [find below]

  2. A First Attempt at Citizen Data Audits [link]

  3. Data Stewardship through Citizen Centered Data Audits [link]


The Current Reality of Personal Data Audits

Before we can talk about citizen data audits, it is helpful to first introduce the idea of auditing in general, and then unpack the current reality of personal data audits. In this post, I’ll explain what audits are, the dominant approach to data audits in the world right now, and finally, the role that audits play in normalizing the current corporate-focused data regime.

The aim of any audit is to check whether people are carrying out practices according to established standards or criteria that ensure proper, efficient and effective management of resources.

By their nature, audits are twice removed from reality. In one sense, this is because auditors look for evidence of tasks rather than engaging directly in them. An auditor shows up after data has been collected, processed, stored or applied, and they study the processes used, as well as their impacts. They ask questions like “How were these tasks completed, and, were they done properly?”

Auditors are removed from reality in a second sense, because they use standards established by other people. An auditor might ask “Were these tasks done according to corporate policy, professional standards, or the law?” Auditors might gain insights into how policies, standards or laws might be changed, but their main job is to report on compliance with standards set by others.

Because auditors are removed from the reality of data work, and because they focus on compliance, their work can come across as distant, prescribed – and therefore somewhat boring. But when you step back and look at the bigger picture, audits raise many important questions. Who do auditors report to and why? Who sets the standards by which personal data audits are carried out? What processes does a personal data audit enforce? How might audits normalize corporate use of personal data?

We can start to answer these questions by digging into the criteria that currently drive corporate audits of personal data. These can be divided into two main aspects: corporate policy and government regulation.

On the corporate side, audits are driven by two main criteria: risk management and profitability. From a corporate point of view, personal data audits are no exception. Companies want to make sure that personal data doesn’t expose them to liabilities, and that use of this resource is contributing effectively and efficiently to the corporate bottom line.

That means that when they audit their use of personal data, they will check to see whether the costs of warehousing and managing data is worth the reward in terms of efficiencies or returns. They will also check to see whether the use of personal data exposes them to risk, given existing legal requirements, social norms or professional practices. For example, poor data management may expose a company to the risk of being sued, or the risk of alienating their clientele. Companies want to ensure that their internal practices limit exposure to risks that may damage their brand, harm their reputation, incur costs, or undermine productivity.

In total, corporate data audits are driven by, and respond to, corporate policies, and those policies are organized around ensuring the viability and success of the corporation.

Of course, the success of a corporation does not always align with the well-being of the community. We see this clearly in the world of personal data. Corporate hunger for personal data resources has often come at the expense of personal or community rights.

Because of this, governments insist that companies enforce three additional regulatory data audit criteria: informed consent, personal data security, and personal data privacy.

We can see these criteria reflected clearly in the EU’s General Data Privacy Regulation. Under the GDPR, companies must ask customers for permission to access their data, and when they do so, they must provide clear information about how they intend to use that data.

They must also account for the personal data they hold, how it was gathered, from whom, to what end, where it is held, and who accesses it for what business processes. The purpose of these rules is to ensure companies develop clear internal data management policies and practices, and this, in turn, is meant to ensure companies are thinking carefully about how to protect personal privacy and data security. The GDPR requires companies to audit their data management practices on the basis of these criteria.

Taking corporate policy and government regulation together, personal data audits are currently informed by 5 criteria – profitability, risk, consent, security and privacy. What does this tell us about the management of data resources in our current data regime?

In a recent Guardian piece Stephanie Hare pointed out that “the GDPR could have … [made] privacy the default and requir[ed] us to opt in if we want to have our data collected. But this would hurt the ability of governments and companies to know about us and predict and manipulate our behaviour.” Instead, in the current regime, governments accept the central audit criteria of businesses, and on top of this, they establish the minimal protections necessary to ensure a steady flow of personal data to those same corporate actors. This means that the current data regime (at least in the West) privileges the idea that data resides with the individual, and also the idea that corporate success requires access to personal data.

Audits work to enforce the collection of personal data by private companies, by ensuring that companies are efficient, effective and risk averse in the collection of personal data. They also normalize corporate collection of personal data by providing a built in response to security threats and privacy concerns. When the model fails – when there is a security breach or privacy is disrespected – audits can be used to identify the glitch so that the system can continue its forward march.

And this means that audits can, indeed, serve as tools of datafication and domination. But I don’t think this necessarily needs to be the case. In the next post, I’ll explore what we’ve learned from experimenting with citizen data audits, before turning to the question of how they can contribute to the decolonization of big data in the final post.


About the author: Dr. Katherine Reilly is Associate Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is the recipient of a SSHRC Partnership Grant and an International Development Research Centre grant to explore citizen data audit methodologies alongside Derechos Digitales in Chile, Fundacion Karisma in Colombia, Sula Batsu in Costa Rica, TEDIC in Paraguay, HiperDerecho in Peru, and ObservaTIC in Uruguray.