What’s The Problem?
A decade or more ago personal data in a digital format was not as prevalent, and information was usually transferred between entities, be they business, organizations or individuals, in formalized and regulated ways. Carbon copy paper trails would be left scattered throughout business departments and filing cabinets around the world. Your bank would have a copy of your last statement, and through government mandate, so would you. Everybody’s tail would be covered should disaster strike.
It took a long time to get to that level of accountability, and even today the system is still corruptible. Recent events such as the WorldCom collapse or more recently the Bernie Madoff scandal demonstrated this corruptibility, but at the same time, for those who chose to wield it, bureaucracy was there, audits were in place, and eventually abusers of the system could be brought to justice. Throw in a little free-market capitalism and business could even get a double-whamee: being forced to pay regulator-levied fines while also taking a hit in their stock’s reputation. It’s not perfect, but it’s far from where it was when modern industry exploded over a hundred years ago with barely any oversight from independent parties.
Today personal data is moving around in a much looser, less regulated fashion. In some big cases such as on-line banking or even on-line shopping your rights are still protected as lawyers finagle ways to move laws used to protect traditional forms of information exchange into the new digital realm. In other cases the laws are less vague due to the inherent lack of standards when it comes to non-typical digital information exchange.
Take email for example. One might assume laws regarding email could be brought into the digital realm easily, as it is simply another means of exchanging free-form information. But therein lies the issue. An email is not a personal letter, nor a company memo, nor an advertisement, or a application form. Instead, it is all of those and many more. How does one legally protect such a means of information exchange that only temporarily assumes the identity of another document type, but at its fundamental level is actually a significantly different means of information exchange than anything. “Email,” in this case is actually more akin to paper than to the letter or advertisement written on the paper. Recent court cases highlight some of the confusing aspects of email regulation.