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Finsbury Park

Fernando Barrio

Fernando is an Argentine-British academic and policy analyst focused on the interaction of digital technologies, Artificial Intelligence, businesses, and sustainability with the law, research, and policy engagement projects in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. He is also part of the Digital Technologies Group of the Technology Executive Committee of the UNFCCC and of the World Bank group of experts for AI and Human Rights. Currently, Reader in Sustainable Business Law and Policy at the Queen Mary University of London, and has taught in higher education institutions in Argentina, France, Japan, the UK, and the USA.

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Finsbury Park was a commuters’ hub where train, metro, buses, and VLR lines converged. Ignoring the warnings about not rushing towards trains, Fiona did a short run to get into the King Charles V line just before the carriage’s door shut. As soon as she entered the train, she felt the vibration of her e-wallet, indicating that the system had deducted the fare from her Infotron credits account.

It was 2043, and Infotron, a virtual space that amalgamated all available data about individuals and objects into an AI-powered, accessible digital framework, was ubiquitous. Following the passing of the Global Regulation for Enhanced Electronic Discovery in 2035, different existing platforms saw a rapid wave of brutal market concentration, resulting in the creation of a single global platform that had access to all the data about everyone and everything and used it to train itself while providing a plethora of services. Initially, the integration of such a comprehensive system raised concerns about privacy and data security. However, the global society gradually embraced this new norm due to the unparalleled convenience and interconnectedness it offered.

Everybody was supposed to have an Infotron account and the whole of people’s data was made available to all in exchange for credits. Instead of traditional monetary compensation, individuals were remunerated with these credits for their data contributions. Giving data to the system created the credits, those credits could be used to purchase goods and services, and requesting data about anyone or anything could be done openly in exchange for credits too. This system was perceived as a fair exchange; people’s everyday activities, preferences, and personal details were recorded and fed into the Infotron, and in return, they received credits. These credits became a universal currency, widely accepted for purchasing goods and services, paying fares, and more.

Fiona was thinking about work when she saw her short hair, dark brown eyes, and a beautiful smile directed at her. Fiona’s heart started to beat loudly, and she did a quick double blink to turn on her Magic Eye, a technology-enhanced contact lens that connected her to the Infotron. She could see that next to her was James Abhu, a systems engineer who graduated from the University of Lagos and works at a mega consulting firm. Next to him was Marion Nickolas, who had an appointment to see a cardiologist. Her pulse was accelerated, and the Infotron concluded that she was nervous. She bypassed all the information about all those people, and when she reached the beautiful face that was still smiling at her from the other side of the carriage, nothing! No information whatsoever, just a figure, like those seen in old films where a body has been drawn with chalk on the pavement. How can that be possible? Fiona opened her MCD, a Multifunction Communication Device, to connect to a deeper layer of Infotron; she could see even more information about all the other passengers except her.

Fiona wanted to approach this woman who was still smiling at her and started to walk slowly across the carriage, which was packed with people during rush hour. As Fiona made her way through the crowded carriage, her heart raced with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. The woman’s smile seemed to beckon her, yet the mystery surrounding her absence from the Infotron database only deepened Fiona’s intrigue. This enigmatic figure, who stood out in a world where anonymity was a rarity, had captivated Fiona’s attention in a way she hadn’t experienced before. As Fiona approached, the woman’s smile broadened an unspoken acknowledgment that seemed to transcend the need for digital validation. But before Fiona could reach her, the woman gracefully stepped off the train at the newly opened East London station. Fiona watched her disappear into the crowd, a fleeting presence leaving a lasting impression.

Left on the train, Fiona’s heart pounded even harder. The woman’s absence in the Infotron was baffling. In a society where every action, every person, and every minute detail is documented and accessible, how could someone exist completely off the grid? The encounter with the captivating and mysterious woman on the train revealed, for the first time to Fiona, that despite Infotron’s vast database, there were individuals who existed outside its digital grasp. This development hinted at deeper complexities within the seemingly transparent fabric of the Infotron-dominated society. It suggested the presence of hidden layers and possibly individuals or entities that operated outside the standard paradigms, challenging the notion of total informational omniscience.

Fiona had the burning desire to find this woman again, wondering how to find information outside of the usual Infotron all-encompassing database. The challenge was daunting, yet exhilarating. This mysterious woman had awakened a sense of adventure in Fiona, a desire to explore the uncharted, to discover what lay beyond the digital horizon.

Fiona arrived at her station and walked towards her office building, and as she approached the door, it opened automatically with her preferred singer voice greeting her and asking why the mix of excitement and sorrow. The whole integrated system tailored the greeting according to all the information available about the person, which included real-time data from the various sensors that people’s clothes, devices, and accessories had. Fiona sat at her desk and, while designing the new marketing campaign for the latest home carbon-capture machine, which was for the first time combined with an energy-producing one, could not stop thinking about the mysterious smiling woman. The woman’s smile, her graceful exit, and the perplexing fact that she was invisible to the Infotron, lingered in Fiona’s mind; it was a puzzle that challenged the very foundations of her digitally-driven world. As Fiona brainstormed ideas for the marketing campaign, her creative process was now tinged with this new sense of intrigue. The woman on the train had unknowingly become a muse, inspiring Fiona to think beyond the confines of her usual digital landscape. In a world where almost everything was measured, analyzed, and predicted, the encounter was a refreshing anomaly, a reminder of the unpredictable nature of human experiences.

Fiona was deep in her thoughts when she realized she was meeting her father for lunch. Her father was a long-retired academic who had the joy of having her as his youngest daughter when he was already mature and was now nearly 80 years old. An old soldier of the 2000s digital copyright wars, his career was always related to the relationship between digital technologies and the law, so Fiona realized that he might have ideas as to how to obtain information about her mysterious crush. Fiona’s lunch appointment with her father offered an unexpected opportunity to explore the mystery of the woman from the train. Her father’s extensive background in the interplay between digital technologies and legal frameworks made him an ideal confidant and advisor in this unusual situation.

As Fiona made her way to the lunch venue, her mind was abuzz with thoughts about how her father’s insight could shed light on the enigma. Despite his age, her father remained a keen and perceptive thinker, especially in matters concerning the digital world. His experiences lecturing about law and technology, AI, and related matters endowed him with a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the complexities of digital information systems.

Sitting down to lunch with her father, Fiona shared the encounter with the mysterious woman, expressing her bafflement at the woman’s absence from the Infotron’s database. She hoped that her father’s expertise could provide some clues or theories as to how someone could exist outside the omnipresent digital surveillance and data collection.

Her father listened intently, his eyes reflecting a mixture of curiosity and understanding. He explained that while the Infotron was vast and comprehensive, it was not infallible. There could be several reasons why someone might not appear in its database, ranging from technical glitches to deliberate evasion techniques. He also pointed out that there might be individuals or groups who, for various reasons, chose or needed to stay off the digital grid, existing in the shadows of the hyper-connected world. Fiona’s father also suggested that even if the woman wasn’t directly present in the Infotron, there might be indirect ways to learn more about her. He advised Fiona to consider the woman’s interactions with her surroundings and any physical clues she might have left behind. In a world dominated by digital information, the importance of old-fashioned observation and deduction couldn’t be overstated. The challenge ahead was formidable, but Fiona was now more eager than ever to unravel the mystery of the woman who had captivated her so completely.

Before finishing the lunch, while they were sharing a warm toffee pudding with ice cream, Fiona’s father suggested that, as there are people that have chosen not to make their data available in the Infotron, deconstructing how the system allowed and permitted the sharing of information about almost everyone and everything, could give her hints about this woman’s whereabouts. Thinking how those people conducted their daily lives, knowing that they would need to pay for goods and services, that not many companies accepted money anymore, and not in all stations you could purchase tickets for the transport system, could open new paths of finding her.

He squinted as if trying to see an old contour better and seemed to be delivering a lecture in front of his usual hundreds of students of the past. He explained that in the 1970s, the concept of data privacy began gaining attention due to the increased use of computers for data storage and processing. The first data protection laws were introduced to address concerns about the misuse of personal data, and he mentioned something about a German state, not remembering if it was Hesse or others. These laws were primarily reactive, designed to curb specific abuses that had already become apparent.

The turn of the millennium, particularly after September 11, 2001, when planes shattered buildings and the then superpower started the War on Terror, marked a significant shift in data privacy perspectives. The War on Terror led to heightened security measures worldwide, with governments seeking extensive access to personal data for that purpose. This period saw a push towards integrating databases and easing data sharing between security and intelligence agencies, often at the expense of individual privacy. The argument for national security often overrode privacy concerns, leading to legislation that granted governments more access to personal data.

However, although many European countries joined the different wars that used the War on Terror to transfer massive amounts of wealth to a few arms and construction companies, in the European Union, data protection laws were primarily focused on safeguarding personal information from unauthorized access and misuse. Laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and various data privacy acts in other parts of the world, which followed the European lead on this, set strict guidelines for data handling and granted individuals significant control over their personal data. These laws aimed to protect privacy in an increasingly digital world, and they seemed to be doing a good job.

In 2020, two years before Fiona was born, the COVID-19 pandemic saw changes in data privacy norms. The need to track and manage health crises led to the collection and analysis of vast amounts of personal health data. Contact tracing apps, health status monitoring, and movement tracking became commonplace, with governments and health organizations needing real-time access to personal data to manage the pandemic. This period also saw increased public acceptance of such measures as necessary for public health and safety.

In the late 2020s, as technology advanced, especially with the proliferation of the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and big data analytics, all coupled with generations that grew up accustomed to share everything they did online, data protection and privacy laws began to be questioned. They were not fully equipped to address the complexities of data management in an interconnected digital ecosystem, and there was a push for more dynamic and inclusive data protection frameworks. This period witnessed a significant shift in public perception and regulatory approaches towards data privacy.

Simultaneously, enormous corporations, particularly in the tech sector, were gaining unprecedented influence. Their lobbying efforts and marketing strategies promoted the benefits of data sharing for the personalization of services and convenience. These corporations advocated for more relaxed data privacy laws, emphasizing the economic and societal benefits of data-driven technologies. The arguments about the immense benefits of data sharing for convenience, security, and economic growth started to outweigh the traditional concerns about privacy. This shift was gradual and accompanied by significant public debate and scrutiny, as well as an enormous number of academic events and publications.

The relaxation of data protection rules that led to the Infotron era was a result of a confluence of factors: heightened security needs, public health crises, corporate influence, and a gradual shift in public perception towards valuing convenience and connectivity over traditional privacy norms. These historical developments created a societal framework where a system like Infotron could not only exist but thrive, fundamentally altering the relationship between individuals, their data, and the wider world.

The establishment of the Infotron marked a pivotal moment in data protection history. Governments and corporations collaborated to create a system where data sharing was incentivized rather than merely regulated. The Infotron credits system emerged as a key component of this new framework. Individuals were compensated with these credits for sharing their data, which could be used for various transactions and services. The legal framework was modified to allow broader data collection and sharing, with necessary safeguards and consent mechanisms in place. However, consent became part of everyday transactions, integrated into the use of services and products. The concept of “opting in” became a default, with the option to “opt-out” still available but less prominent.

However, even the opt-out system had safeguards allegedly to prevent misuse, particularly by criminal elements. Anyone convicted of a crime was automatically ineligible to opt out of the Infotron, ensuring their data remained accessible to law enforcement and anyone willing to pay credits to access it. Additionally, the police had the authority to request the inclusion of an individual’s data in the Infotron, but such requests were subject to strict oversight. The Information Superintendent, a position established to oversee Infotron’s operations, was responsible for reviewing these requests. The Superintendent’s decision-making process involved consulting the Privacy Grand Chamber, a diverse panel of experts including legal academics, practicing lawyers, NGO representatives, and business community members. The inclusion of such a varied group ensured a balanced approach to privacy concerns and the public interest. This panel, chaired by the Master of the Rolls, represented a crucial check and balance in the system, safeguarding individual rights against unwarranted surveillance.

Fiona listened with respect, not knowing exactly how the history of privacy and data protection would help her find the train’s woman. However, it soon became apparent that focusing on the old principles and her father’s suggestion to study Infotron’s framework could potentially uncover loopholes or blind spots that the mysterious woman might be exploiting. By understanding the details of how the system was legally permitted to access and share data, and why before wasn’t allowed to do so, Fiona could put herself in the shoes of someone who was decided to not live under the complete-access paradigm. She also concluded that her crush did not have a criminal record and that the Superintendent had not authorized the use of her data, not knowing if it was ever requested or not. Accordingly, the woman had either chosen to opt out of the Infotron system legally or had never been part of it in the first place.

Fiona remembered that when she was setting up different devices or even buying clothes with body sensors, she had to go through the process of opting out of different options of sharing, and in some cases, there were some “legitimate interests” of some organizations that she could not override. She never properly understood the concept of “legitimate interest,” and she had never asked herself whose were those and why they were legitimate. She asked Infotron about it and learned that the concept of “legitimate interest,” in the context of data protection and privacy laws, was a legal basis that allowed organizations to process personal data without explicit consent from the individual, provided that the processing was necessary for a legitimate purpose and did not unduly infringe upon the individual’s rights and freedoms. The core of legitimate interest lies in balancing the organization’s interests against the individual’s right to privacy. An organization had to demonstrate that its need to process the data was compelling enough to override the individual’s right to privacy. Data processing under legitimate interest needs to be necessary for the organization’s stated purpose, meaning that there should be no reasonable, less intrusive way to achieve the same goal. The processing had to align with what an individual could reasonably expect, and organizations were required to inform individuals when their data was being processed under legitimate interest.

In Fiona’s case, when setting up devices or purchasing sensor-embedded clothing, she encountered options for data sharing based on legitimate interest. These could include scenarios where the organization believed it had a valid reason to process its data, like improving product functionality, personalizing services, or ensuring security. However, the concept often existed in a grey area, requiring careful consideration of both the organization’s purposes and the individual’s expectations and rights. Understanding this later idea of people’s expectations of privacy and how Infotron trampled over them would be needed for Fiona to reach deeper into the mystery of the woman who chose to remain outside Infotron’s reach, potentially leveraging these legal nuances to maintain her privacy.

The fact that many devices, objects, and even clothes did not have an opt-out option for collecting and sharing data implied that the only way to stay out of Infotron was to not buy those things, leading to the need to find a detailed list of things where the legitimate interest opting out was available or even those that don’t collect data at all. Once that list was found, it was necessary to find out where those products or services could be purchased. So, the next step was for Fiona to compile a list of products and services where opting out of data collection was possible. This included devices, clothing, and other items that either had built-in privacy features or did not collect data in the first place, with this later group being the focus of the quest. These could include analog devices, non-smart clothing, and traditional services that rely on physical rather than digital interactions.

Fiona would have to seek out retailers or suppliers specializing in privacy-conscious or non-digital products. These could range from niche online platforms to physical stores that cater to privacy-minded individuals or those living off the digital grid, exploring alternative marketplaces, such as local markets, second-hand shops, or community swap meets, where digital surveillance and data collection are not embedded in the transaction process. By focusing on these areas, Fiona could gain insights into the kind of lifestyle and choices someone would make to remain invisible to systems like the Infotron. It would also provide her with clues about where and how the mysterious woman might be living, purchasing goods, and moving around in a society dominated by digital surveillance.

Fiona used Infotron’s very advanced algorithm to compile one list detailing products and services that allowed opting out of data collection and another of those inherently devoid of data collection features; in addition, she requested another one including the addresses of the stores where they could be bought; and finally, it made it analyzed those lists by region and linked them to the two stations that she had as a reference. Infotron corporation had fought to have the possibility of not making available the list of those that don’t feed it information, but there was a specific requirement in the Open Data and Access Act 2035, which permitted the creation of Infotron, that all that information should be available and indexed as any other per-credit information. Fiona’s strategy to utilize Infotron’s capabilities to generate lists of non-data collecting products and services, along with the locations where they could be purchased, was a smart move. This approach leveraged the very system she was trying to circumvent to gain insights into the world of those who chose to live outside its digital gaze.

Infotron algorithmic analysis of the lists by region helped Fiona understand the geographical distribution of such stores and services, potentially indicating areas where privacy-conscious individuals might reside or frequent. Linking this information to the two train stations, one where she first saw the woman and the other where she got off the train, would allow Fiona to pinpoint areas within the vicinity of these transport hubs where the mysterious woman might have visited or lived.

Fiona’s approach resulted in a greater understanding of the legal and technical frameworks governing the Infotron. By using the system’s own data-gathering and indexing capabilities, she was turning its expansive reach to her advantage. This method would not only help her in tracing the steps of the woman from the train but also provide a deeper understanding of the lifestyle and choices of those who managed to live outside the all-seeing digital network of Infotron.

However, Infotron Corporation’s response to that kind of request seemed taken from the very old film Class Action, a film that predated her by twenty years and that her father used in his classes to explain the functioning of some aspects of the law in the American system. There, when a small law firm requested a paper that a big law firm knew was going to end the case against them, sent them a whole truck of papers with a very arcane system of indexation, making it almost impossible for the small firm to find it in time for the court proceedings. In the same way, when such a request was made, Infotron gave a list that included a massive amount of data with a peculiar order, resembling many universities’ websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s, where the only way to find information was to know where it was in the first place.

Not surprisingly, in response to Fiona’s request, Infotron provided an enormous quantity of data. This wasn’t just a straightforward list but a comprehensive compilation that included far more information than what Fiona had specifically asked for. The data was indexed in a peculiar and arcane manner. This response from Infotron, while legally compliant, was clearly designed to deter and complicate Fiona’s quest, also showcasing the ability of the algorithm to produce outputs that were not necessarily ethical and that it was adept at deception, using underhanded methods to get the upper hand in different scenarios. However, it also indicated that the corporation was aware of the sensitivity and potential implications of the information she sought. Although the task ahead seemed a difficult one, Fiona’s determination and resourcefulness, coupled with the right strategy and tools, could guide her through this data maze to uncover the information she needed to continue her search for the mysterious woman.

The primary challenge for Fiona was to navigate through this labyrinth of information to find the relevant data about non-data collecting products and their purchase locations. Fiona needed to devise a method to sift through the data efficiently, perhaps by identifying patterns or using keywords related to her query. Another option was to use one of her father’s old collective laptops, which contained stand-alone data analysis software, which could help in filtering and sorting the data, making it easier to extract the relevant information.

That night, Fiona had a video chat with her three older sisters and her father, a weekly custom that they kept since she was little, and they were all living in different countries. She told the story to all of them, and one of her older sisters, more than twenty years older than her, remembered one of her father’s classes, which sometimes she attended when her mother could not pick her up after school, and she needed to go home with him, and the class was about privacy in a time of ubiquitous computing. She remembered her father talking about someone named Lessig and his reference to how privacy could be a byproduct of inefficient data collection. Therefore, she argued, once you have identified a particular region, it should be simpler to look for places where there is no data collection at all, corners of the information grid that are not covered by Infotron, cameras o any form of sensors. She imagined that after the European Court of Human Rights case Peck v UK had been long overruled, ending privacy in public places, those privacy savvy would find places where, due to inefficiencies, data was not collected at all. Her father explained to all four of them that, as Lessig suggested, privacy could emerge not necessarily from deliberate protective measures but as a consequence of inefficiencies in data collection systems, in an era where data collection is pervasive, areas or instances where data is not collected due to technical limitations, oversight, or other reasons, could become inadvertent havens of privacy.

Fiona’s sister’s suggestion implied a new layer in her strategy. In addition to looking for places where people consciously opted out of data collection, Fiona needed to search for areas where the Infotron or other surveillance systems had gaps or inefficiencies. This approach would involve identifying blind spots in Infotron’s coverage and areas where technical limitations, environmental factors, or other issues prevent effective data collection, which would be challenging but not impossible. These could include older buildings, underground areas, certain natural environments, or simply spots overlooked by digital surveillance networks. Fiona would start by mapping the city’s surveillance infrastructure and identifying potential blind spots.

This conversation with her family not only provided emotional support but also opened up a new dimension in Fiona’s quest. It shifted her focus from trying to combat the system’s complexity to finding refuge in its imperfections. By exploring the unnoticed or neglected corners of the information grid, Fiona might uncover the paths and spaces frequented by those like the mysterious woman who navigated life away from the omnipresent digital eye.

After the call, Fiona requested Infotron to draw a shaded map of fixed data collection points in an area that included both known stations and extended two kilometers around them. As expected, the resulting map was almost solid, implying that it was covered by fixed collection points, but the key was “almost.” A blank spot near the East End station called her attention. It seemed that there was a spot, half the size of a tennis court, near the Band Stand of Victoria Park, outside the reach of any type of sensor or camera. This area’s lack of surveillance coverage made it a rare anomaly in a city blanketed by data collection points. It could be due to various reasons, such as environmental factors, technical limitations, or simply an oversight in the otherwise meticulous surveillance network. If the mysterious woman from the train was indeed savvy about avoiding digital surveillance, she might be aware of and utilize such blind spots.

Fiona’s discovery of this blank spot was a significant breakthrough in her quest. It offered a tangible lead in a search that had thus far been dominated by digital data and complex analysis. This small, unmonitored area near Victoria Park’s Band Stand provided a new avenue for investigation, a physical space where the digital world’s rules and reach might not apply and where the mysterious woman might have left traces of her existence. Following that, Fiona asked Infotron to draw possible walking paths from East London station to Victoria Park Village Green, which is close to the nearest entrance from the Band Stand, and the system showed three ways to go. She then requested current images of those paths and observed that in one, the dense foliage of the trees hid the path beneath them.

Imagining that any privacy-seeking person would choose that road, they decided to go there the following Saturday, which, according to Infotron, was going to be a lovely spring day. This choice of day also suggested that the park would likely be frequented by other visitors, providing a natural cover for Fiona’s investigative activities. She went to bed overexcited and unable to sleep. The park was not just a potential clue in her search for the mysterious woman; it was a place imbued with personal history and significance. Her mind went back to the stories she heard about her mother and father going to Victoria Park to walk before and during the great 2020 pandemic, to have picnics, and to watch fireworks, all before she was born. The images created by the sweet stories that she had been told added an emotional dimension to her quest, and the memories of them made her sleep with a smile.

Fiona’s Saturday morning unfolded with a blend of familiar rituals and palpable anticipation. Her breakfast, a fried egg, orange juice, and black coffee, as well as a comforting routine passed down from her father, provided a grounding start to what she knew would be an eventful day. Dressed in her carefully chosen attire, grey jeans, white canvas sneakers, and a vintage Motley Crue t-shirt that her father got in a concert the year she was born, including the special leather jacket that used to be her mother’s, Fiona set out with a mix of excitement and nervousness.

The train ride to East End station was a familiar journey, yet it felt different this time. Her heart raced with a blend of anxiety and excitement, emotions that were new to Fiona in this context. Upon arriving at Victoria Park Village Green, Fiona took a moment to observe the scene. The Royal Inn on the Park, with people enjoying breakfast outside, provided a backdrop of normalcy and calm. Fiona made her way towards the Band Stand area; the park, with its natural beauty and personal significance, seemed to hold its breath with her.

She approached the area near the Band Stand; Fiona’s eyes found her unknown, familiar face. Sitting alone on a picnic mat was the subject of her pursuit, the woman from the train.

She raised her eyes slowly and greeted Fiona with a warm smile, simply saying, “Hi, I am Molly.”

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