SCL Event Report: SCL Privacy & DP Group on Big Data

Laurence Eastham reports on the meeting of the SCL Privacy & DP Group on 10 May which was hosted by Hunton & Williams LLP

 I was probably the only person setting off for the SCL Privacy & DP Group meeting who didn’t realise that 30 St Mary Axe was the Gherkin and I was childishly pleased to find myself in an iconic building. I am not sure if the airport-style security should really have allowed me access based on flashing a Wiltshire County Council bus pass as ID, but they let me in anyway. Perhaps the Gherkin security Big Data is so voluminous that it includes bus pass records and can make instant decisions to verify identity even from such flimsy evidence. After all, Big Data is everywhere – indeed, that was rather the point and the reason for being there.

Certainly Big Data was on everyone’s minds at the meeting as, under the flawless guidance of the meeting’s Chair, Anita Bapat (Senior Associate at Hunton & Williams), we moved swiftly into the meat of the issues.

Will Becker from Lexical Labs started us off with definition of Big Data. What is Big Data to you and I – something that makes our laptop grind to a halt – is a mere trifle to the real Big Data merchants. Think massive and multiply it many times over. Will memorably illustrated that most Big Data is in fact logs and information that identifies  - and differentiates one David Smith from the 6,000 other David Smiths in the UK. According to Will, what really marks out Big Data is not the size but what you can do with it (a sentiment echoed later by Helen Woollett in her ‘size isn’t everything’ slide later). We were taken on a speedy journey through possible applications in a variety of contexts and the frequent attempts to make sense of clustering and the modelling and predictions that flowed from it.

Liam Gilchrist is a co-founder of Lexical Labs and his focus was on the application of techniques associated with Big Data to the practice of law. Liam feels that law firms rarely appreciate just how much data they have and that techniques for querying Big Data can be applied to some tasks that represent the ‘low-hanging fruit’ – due diligence and discovery being the prime examples. But Liam thinks that even drafting (which involves a lot of searching), pricing and regulatory compliance can benefit from these techniques. But Liam reassured the meeting that none of this offers a threat to lawyers, it was focused on improving efficiency and improving the service to clients. He saw it as an exciting time to be a lawyer with a brave new world within reach.

Helen Woollett’s talk brought the focus back closer to the usual SCL Privacy & DP Group territory with her review of the effect of the GDPR on Big Data. Helen’s banking regulation background and very obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the GDPR made for a fascinating presentation that did not shy away from the nitty-gritty. She was able to identify a number of dangers and was a persuasive advocate of the need for speedy action from those yet to make themselves GDPR-ready. She predicted a move away from reliance on consent, which was especially problematic in the Big Data context, and a swing towards the legitimate interest justification for processing.

A very animated Q & A followed, in which our Chair Anita Bapat contributed both Q & A. I thought I detected some consternation in Will Becker’s demeanour when the limits that might arise in using Big Data post-GDPR were spelled out. And I very much liked the panel’s response to the question relating to the duty to make the use of data understandable to individuals – to paraphrase, some things are just very complicated and all you can do is put the information out there for those capable of understanding it.

Heads reeling with all that information, the drinks, courtesy of our generous hosts, were gratefully received.

Laurence Eastham edits Computers & Law.

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