Code projected over woman

Book review: ‘Beyond Data’ by Elizabeth M Renieris

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In the crusade to protect personal data, have we forgotten to protect people?

In our digital world, “data” is the world in everyone’s mouths. Data is “the new oil”, “the new currency”, the “new water”. Data is the thing companies trade with, and the largest concern of many governments and privacy advocates. And yet, there is no point in protecting sensitive data if the regulations established to do so do not take into account the dangers that real people face in the digital world.

In the post-pandemic and ever-digitalising era, terms like data and data privacy are often over-used, and debates around this type of legislation often end up feeling like walking in circles. Not this book.  

In Beyond Data: Reclaiming Human Rights at the Dawn of the Metaverse (MIT Press, $26.95, ISBN 9780262047821), Elizabeth M Renieris argues that laws focused on data protection, data privacy, data security and data ownership have unintentionally failed to protect people’s dignity and autonomy. In order to address this imbalance, she defends the need for a human-rights-centred approach to data legislation. 

Over the course of the book’s 240 pages, Renieris provides a comprehensive history of data, that reviews its many historical definitions and the numerous attempts at passing legislation that would protect citizens’ right to privacy in a constantly digitalising world - as well as the efforts of the private sector to undermine these projects. 

The US's Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs), the Council of Europe's Convention 108, the EU's Data Protection Directive and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) all get their moment in the spotlight, among many other legislative projects pertaining to data. These examples serve to showcase the different attitudes taken by countries to defend individuals' right to privacy, and how good intentions often get diluted in the face of extremely aggressive lobbying. 

Beyond Data is both a compelling historical review as well as a powerful call to action, with its main strength being the latter. Although the book’s detailed explanation of the events and developments that have brought us to our current situation regarding data legislation is informative and well-explained, it is Renieris's defence of a new understanding of human rights for a digital world which makes her work a truly compelling work. 

The impact of the author’s thesis raises the question of why it takes Renieris until the book’s final section to truly explore her position: a human rights-centred approach to data regulation. The book effectively explains why data is a flawed basis for the protection of people’s privacy, and proposes an entirely new framework. The most fascinating chapters  reflect on how human rights should be redefined to better serve the requirements of the digital era, and the fast-approaching metaverse. 

Nonetheless, although her conclusion is tentatively hopeful, the reader cannot help but feel doubtful that such a position can be achieved, based on the author’s own recounting of the many times governments and private companies have failed to prioritise the individual in its attempt to protect the information. Could 'ethics' be motivation enough to enact change? 

As the world becomes ever more fascinated by smart chatbots such as ChatGPT, and the European Union and the United Kingdom discuss the implementation of new data protection regulations, Renieris encourages her readers to think beyond what is most practical today, and focus on the ethical implications that these decisions will have  tomorrow.  

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