The rise of a digital underclass may be tech's next big challenge

Society's most vulnerable are suffering the worst consequences of privacy infringement in the digital age.

Big tech wants one single federal data privacy law, but why?

The saying 'data is the new oil' has already become a banality. But as corporations capitalize on the value contained in our personal information, the benefits of digital innovation remain unevenly distributed – so much, in fact, that according to the UK's Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, a digital underclass is now on the rise.

"There is a gap between those who are the objects of technology or of data processing, and those who are in power," she said at an event in London focusing on digital ethics. "And the prospect of a digital underclass certainly sits uncomfortably with me as a regulator."

Half of the 10 richest people in the world are current or former tech CEOs; and a survey carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit among executives from around the world revealed that 83% of respondents said that data makes the services and products they sell more profitable.

SEE: 60 ways to get the most value from your big data initiatives (free PDF)

Denham pointed at a privacy manifesto published last month based on the vision of Giovanni Buttarelli, the late European Data Protection Supervisor, who condemned the state of "data-opoly" that keeps power in the hands of those who control the collection of data. At the other end of the spectrum are those whose personal information is harvested to generate profit, but who have no say over the use of their digital selves.

Denham argued that this digital underclass does not have the means to understand the logic of the algorithms that affect them. Workers in the gig economy, for example, are unable to access the data that rates their performance or determines how jobs are assigned.

Last May, in fact, Uber drivers took legal action against the company to require access to the data collected about them and which they are currently denied, in a demand for greater transparency.

In this case, the divide between the powerful holders of data and the more vulnerable providers of information came under the spotlight. But there is still some way to go before this is the norm, according to Denham.  

"Any organization processing data is required to let people access this data and rectify it if necessary," she said. "But most people don't exercise those rights

"We can't have safeguards only for those who have the time, expertise and money to understand what they are entitled to by law."

For her, the solution lies in accountability – "because accountability means that organizations have to consider the risk that data processing poses for people," she said.

A successful step forward, she said, was the implementation of GDPR. With accountability featuring among its key principles, GDPR warns organizations that they are responsible for putting in place appropriate technical measures to meet the requirements of data protection.

For example, corporations may have to implement privacy-by-design, which requires tech companies to develop software that makes privacy the default mode of operation.

SEE: GDPR is missing the point, says Edward Snowden

While accountability is at the heart of GDPR, however, there is still reason to be skeptical that the new European rules will be enough to change the whole game.

In his manifesto, Buttarelli maintained that GDPR so far has led to little visible changes to data practices. "The shared experience is of ubiquitous emails and popups requiring you to accept new terms and conditions," he said.

And the major fines faced by organizations for breaching GDPR? They seem to be factored into corporate strategies as a business risk, rather than to have any real effect, he argued. For him, what is needed is empowerment of the vulnerable and unskilled, through safeguards against what he called "a manipulation machine".