The recent revelations by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden have raised important questions surrounding the issues of Big Data and the right to privacy.
Edward Snowden is an ex-CIA employee who last week leaked details of US top-secret phone and internet surveillance to The Guardian newspaper. The leaks reveal that the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) uses a programme known as Prism to directly tap into the servers of leading internet firms to track online communication. It has also been alleged that UK surveillance agency GCHQ used the system to spy on British citizens, although on Monday (9 June 2013) William Hague reassured Parliament that all British agencies ‘practise and uphold UK law at all times’. Barack Obama has also reassured Americans that ‘nobody is listening to your telephone calls.’
Since the leaks were disclosed, a debate has emerged among commentators around the issues arising from the proliferation of data and data mining techniques and where the lines should be drawn. Some remain relatively relaxed by the news. ‘So far, I have never seen or felt any real-world consequences from this theoretical vulnerability,’ Gideon Rachmann wrote in the Financial Times (behind paywall).
Benedict Brogan posited in The Telegraph that we have already reached a point of no return: ‘There is far more information about us out there than governments, let alone spy agencies, know what to do with. In the age of Big Data, we provide it willingly every time we swipe our travel pass or click to agree a website’s terms without bothering to read them.’ A Washington Post opinion poll conducted after the leaks were published suggest that the majority of Americans think government monitoring of phone records is acceptable if the aim is to combat terrorism.
However, others have voiced dismay. Hugo Rifkind in The Times called the revelations ‘sinister’, and that sweeping powers of surveillance ‘are only justifiable if they are granted with transparency […] subject to a system of checks and balances in which everybody can have faith.’ Ai Weiwei in The Guardian called it ‘abusively using government powers to interfere in individuals’ privacy.’
Hetan Shah, executive director of the RSS said: ‘This incident shows that the ubiquity of data is now putting strain on established norms and laws around privacy. Government and regulators need to get on the front foot to frame a regulatory regime for data that both protects individuals and promotes the public good. This will take a major public conversation, as nobody yet knows what this looks like.’
The RSS is holding a conference celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, of ‘An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances’. Based on notes by Thomas Bayes, and edited by Richard Price, it was submitted in 1763, two years after Bayes’ death.
The conference takes place over two days, 19-20 June 2013, at the Royal Statistical Society in London.
The influence of Bayes’ work in the last 250 years is immense. Up until the early 20th century, Bayesian inference was the de facto method of doing statistics. While the work of RA Fisher and Neymen and Pearson dampened interest in Bayesian methods somewhat through the middle of last century, it saw a resurgence in the later part of the century with the proliferation of ever more complex data and the development of Markov chain Monte Carlo methods.
‘It’s a great sign of success that now we see Bayesian applications and methods in all aspects of scientific inference,’ says Chris Holmes, professor of statistics at Oxford University, who is co-organising the conference with Professor Christian Robert.
The conference features speakers from a range of academic backgrounds. ‘We wanted the workshop to reflect the diversity of Bayesian statistics, especially in the UK where there is great strength and breadth in this topic,’ explains Professor Holmes.
A video-recorded interview with one of the key researchers who continued to champion the Bayesian approach throughout the 20th century, Dennis Lindley, which will be shown on screen at the conference. One of his former doctoral students, and past president of the Society, Sir Adrian Smith, will provide closing remarks at the end of the conference.
Another feature of the conference will be a poster session, which is open to all statisticians, in particular, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers to showcase their ideas.
A full list of the 19 speakers and topics covered at the conference is published here, as are details for those wishing to register for the conference.
Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, David Spiegelhalter, was the subject of this week’s Radio 4 programme, The Life Scientific.
The 30-minute show, presented by physicist and broadcaster Jim al-Khalili, regularly features interviews with leading scientists in their respective fields about their life and work.
The Royal Statistical Society is continuing its ‘getstats in Parliament’ series with two more lunchtime panel events. RSS members are invited although spaces are extremely limited.
The next event, titled: ‘MPs – what do you know about your constituency? How to get the evidence and the statistics’ is aimed at MPs and peers. It takes place in Portcullis House, Westminster, on Tuesday 2 July 2013 (1-2 pm, preceded by a light lunch).
Mark Easton, home editor of BBC News will chair the event. Panellists include Bernard Jenkin MP, chair of Public Administration Select Committee; Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Sheffield; and Aleks Collingwood from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Contributions will also be made by Richard Cracknell from the House of Commons Library and Ross Young of the UK Statistics Authority on the 2011 Census and the case for improving constituency data respectively.
The event will address questions such as: Where do MPs and their staff go for the latest, most accurate evidence? Is the data broken down by constituency or do they have to work with figures relating to council areas or even regions? Who is guaranteeing the data is accurate? How up-to-date is census data? Could it come on stream quicker? Is enough use made of information generated by the NHS, councils and the government itself?
A further event, ‘Counting them in and counting them out’ is scheduled for Thursday 24 October 2013. This will examine the issue of immigration and migration. Further details are available on the getstats website.
UK Statistics Authority chair Andrew Dilnot, Professor John Hills of the LSE and Dr Lucy Carpenter of Nuffield College are among those recognised in this year’s Birthday Honours list.
Andrew Dilnot was awarded a knighthood for services to economics and economic policy. The man behind 2011’s Dilnot Report on adult social care has been chair of the Statistics Authority since April 2012. A recognised broadcaster and communicator of statistics, he presented the Radio 4 programme ‘More or Less’ before the current presenter Tim Harford. He was also director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies for more than a decade. Mr Dilnot told the BBC he was ‘deeply honoured’ to receive the award.
John Hills, professor of Social Policy and director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, was also knighted; in his case, for services to social policy development. His independent review of fuel poverty was praised for its potential to help ‘target assistance at those who need it most, with a long-lasting impact through quality of life improvements for some of the most vulnerable in society.’ Hills delivered the Royal Statistical Society’s Beveridge Lecture in 2005.
Dr Lucy Carpenter (Emeritus fellow at Nuffield College) received an MBE for services to public health in the UK and abroad. Her research focuses on occupational epidemiology, HIV in Uganda, associations between cancer and infectious diseases and statistical methods in epidemiological research.
Other notable recipients included Nigel Shadbolt, co-founder of the Open Data Institute (with Sir Tim Berners-Lee) who was awarded a knighthood, and the chief statistician of Turks and Caicos Islands, Shirlen Albert Forbes, who received a British Empire Medal for services to the development of statistics in the British overseas territory.
John Pullinger, president of the RSS said: ‘It is wonderful that, in the International Year of Statistics, so many of our friends and colleagues with a passion for data and statistics have been recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list.’
The G8 countries have committed to supporting the underlying principles of open data at Lough Erne this week by signing up to an Open Data Charter.
The charter binds each participating country to manage its data under a number of principles: that data is open ‘by default’; that as much data is released in the highest quality possible; and that it is released in useable formats. These actions, the charter decrees, will have ‘enormous potential to create more accountable, efficient, responsive, and effective governments and businesses’.
Supporters of open data predict that the deal will impact on other key issues being discussed at Lough Erne this week, such as tax. ‘Open data will demonstrate how companies are paying tax, in what jurisdictions and who owns what. This will help untangle the corporate web to ensure fair returns to the countries that host and support companies,’ explained the Open Data Institute’s director Nigel Shadbolt in The Telegraph. He also described how one of The ODI’s startup companies identified £200 million of savings in the NHS for one class of prescription drugs, through access to government data.
The signing up to the Open Data Charter comes just a week after the government issued positive responses to recommendations from both the Shakespeare Review and the Administrative Data Taskforce.
In its response to the Shakespeare Review, the government recommended the formation of a National Data Strategy, for which the government will now set out implementation plans in October (via its forthcoming Open Government Partnership National Action Plan). The government has also proposed a review of governance arrangements to open up public sector information and has set a date of 2015 whereby ‘core departmental data’, as defined in the Shakespeare review, will be released.
The recommendations of the newly-formed Administrative Data Taskforce have also been met with a positive response. An Administrative Data Research Centre is proposed for each of the four countries in the UK, as well as the implementation of legislation and provision of funds to support research access to administrative data.
Hetan Shah, executive director of the Royal Statistical Society said: ‘The UK is taking a positive and leading role in the open data movement, and the government must be congratulated on this. In an era of austerity, opening up data is one way to increase innovation and economic activity at a relatively low cost. It needs to be accompanied by a strengthening of the skills base of the population so that people are data literate.
‘The RSS is playing its part in this through the getstats campaign to promote statistical literacy.’