For a few years now, data has become the oil of the fourth industrial revolution, the digital revolution. This explains the enormous interest of both private corporations and public authorities in accessing the data of customers and citizens, to store them and to treat them in a way that makes certain businesses more competitive and certain powers much more influential and powerful. Data are a very valuable asset and the economy depends on them. The United States and the European Union have actively brought in legislation that restricts the possibilities of abuse in accessing and using the public’s data; a lot of data have to do with people’s privacy and intimacy, this opens the door to manipulating people, which is incompatible with democracy and the rule of law. Violating the rules on personal data is severely punished by European law, but still there are violations and breaches every day, which leave the citizen helpless and exposed.
On the other hand, processing and analysing data is an important element for the progress of humanity: lives can be saved, inequality can be dealt with much better, climate change can be fought more effectively, conflicts can be anticipated and prevented , and so on. Medical data, for example, are crucial for the research and treatment of diseases that are currently incurable. And this data are very appealing for the pharmaceutical industry. The combination of economic interests and the technology that allows the exploitation of data, with its application to artificial intelligence, represent a global challenge to which democracy has not yet found an answer that gives citizens the full guarantee that their rights will be protected. On the contrary, there is a growing fear among the public that there is real haggling going on over their data, that there is very little control and transparency, and that more and more invasive and powerful tools are being used (as we have recently seen in the Catalangate case and the illegal use of Pegasus) to access private and intimate information that can give companies and governments a perverse and undemocratic power of control over all of us. (For more on this topic, check out the feature on pages 10-17 of this issue).