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About the Author

Kieron O’Hara is an associate professor in electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton, UK. His interests are in the philosophy and politics of digital modernity, particularly the World Wide Web; key themes are trust, privacy and ethics. He is the author of several books on technology and politics, the latest of which is The Theory and Practice of Social Machines (Springer 2019 , with Nigel Shadbolt, David De Roure and Wendy Hall). He has also written extensively on political philosophy and British politics. He is one of the leads on the UKAN Network, which disseminates best practices in data anonymisation.

About the WSI

The Web Science Institute (WSI) co-ordinates the University of Southampton’s (UoS) world-leading, interdisciplinary expertise in Web Science, to tackle the most pressing global challenges facing the World Wide Web and wider society today. Research lies at its heart, positioning it as a leader in Web Science knowledge and innovation and fuelling its extensive education, training, enterprise and impact activities. The WSI is also UoS’s main point of contact with The Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for Data Science and AI, of which UoS is a partner university.


https://www.southampton.ac.uk/wsi/enterprise-and- impact/policy.page

Executive Summary

In their report on the development of the UK AI industry, Wendy Hall and Jérôme Pesenti recommend the establishment of data trusts , “proven and trusted frameworks and agreements” that will “ensure exchanges [of data] are secure and mutually beneficial” by promoting trust in the use of data for AI. Hall and Pesenti leave the structure of data trusts open, and the purpose of this paper is to explore the questions of (a) what existing structures can data trusts exploit, and (b) what relationship do data trusts have to trusts as they are understood in law?

The paper defends the following thesis:

A data trust works within the law to provide ethical, architectural and governance support for trustworthy data processing

Data trusts are therefore both constraining and liberating. They constrain : they respect current law, so they cannot render currently illegal actions legal. They are intended to increase trust, and so they will typically act as further constraints on data processors, adding the constraints of trustworthiness to those of law. Yet they also liberate : if data processors are perceived as trustworthy, they will get improved access to data.

Most work on data trusts has up to now focused on gaining and supporting the trust of data subjects in data processing. However, all actors involved in AI – data consumers, data providers and data subjects – have trust issues which data trusts need to address. Furthermore, it is not only personal data that creates trust issues ; the same may be true of any dataset whose release might involve an organisation risking competitive advantage.

The paper addresses four areas.

1. Trust and trustworthiness.

With regard to trust, the aims of data trusts are twofold. First, data trusts are intended to define a certain level of trustworthy behaviour for data science. Second, they are

intended to help align trust and
trustworthiness , so we trust all and only
trustworthy actors. The appropriate form of
trust is based not on rules, but on social
licence to operate.

2. Ethics An appropriate ethical regime will help create and support a social licence. Hence a data trust must generate a meaningful ethical code for its members. This will vary, depending on whose trust the data trust is intended to solicit. However, the code should constrain all who operate within it. Hence a data trust is expected to have a membership model , and all the members of the trust would respect the ethical code when acting within the model. One possible example for the foundation of an ethical code is proposed in the paper: the Anonymisation Decision-Making Framework (ADF), proposed by UKAN. 3. Architecture The data trust might not actually have an architecture as such – it might be merely a code of governance. However, this paper discusses one possible architecture, based on the Web Observatory developed at Southampton University, to create a Data Trust Portal. The architecture allows data to be discovered and used , promoting accountability and transparency , without the data leaving the hands of data controllers. A data trust is not a data store. 4. Legal status The paper sets out the manifold reasons why a data trust cannot be a trust in a legal sense. However, it takes inspiration from the notion of a legal trust, and several instances of this are also set out. The key issue is defining the set of beneficiaries , and defining what their rights within the trust will be. Again, the appropriate set of beneficiaries will depend upon the set of agents whose trust is to be solicited by the data trust.

To conclude, data trusts could help align trust and trustworthiness via a concentration on ethics, architecture and governance, allowing data controllers to be transparent about their

processing and sharing, to be held
accountable for their actions, and to engage
with the community whose trust is to be


In their report on the development of the AI industry for the UK government, Hall and Pesenti introduce the idea of a data trust as a means of facilitating data sharing, in order to support industry’s, government’s and academe’s access to the data that is the raw material of AI development (Hall & Pesenti 2017). They specify that data trusts should be “proven and trusted frameworks and agreements” that supply the trust that will “ensure exchanges [of data] are secure and mutually beneficial”. In the background is the unspoken assumption that the US and China have the advantage of being larger markets than the UK (Hall and Pesenti’s focus), and less fragmented markets than the EU (Lee 2018). Another assumption is that data sharing is inherently risky for a number of reasons, including that sharing personal data might put the interests of data subjects at risk, exposing an organisation to a fine or to reputational damage, and that companies might lose trade secrets or competitive advantage by sharing. Hence data sharing needs a ‘shove’ to establish the practice, and data trusts might help to absorb at least some of the perceived risk of data sharing.

Hall and Pesenti leave open the exact nature of data trusts, and define them only functionally. Hardinges (2018), in a survey of this nascent field for the UK Open Data Institute (ODI), whose mission is to increase safe data sharing and to open up as many data stores to as much processing as is consistent with safety, found five particular interpretations:

  1. A repeatable framework of terms and mechanisms.
  2. A mutual organisation.
  3. A legal structure.
  4. A store of data.
  5. Public oversight of data access.

The ODI researchers eventually narrowed down their quest to a single definition

(Hardinges & Wells 2018), which they based
on the notion of a literal legal trust: “a legal
structure that provides independent third-
party stewardship of data”. A trust is a legal
relationship in which an asset is run by a
trustee for the benefit of a beneficiary. Even
though the trustee owns the asset in law, she
is not allowed to run it for her own benefit,
but has a fiduciary duty to ensure that the
benefits fall to the beneficiary. The idea of a
data trust, then, leans on this concept from
common law jurisdictions such as the UK and
the US: whoever have the rights over the data
must commit to administering the data for
the benefit of beneficiaries, rather than for
themselves. Delacroix and Lawrence (2018)
argue that data trusts as Hall and Pesenti
cannot be literal legal trusts.
In this paper, I will broadly endorse the ODI
conception, while also agreeing with Delacroix
and Lawrence, and look in detail at how we
might implement something like this concept,
while also in passing considering the reasons
for rejecting some of the other
interpretations. I will also consider what
technologies and standards might already be
in place to support this implementation. The
key thesis of this paper is:
A data trust works within the law to provide
ethical, architectural and governance
support for trustworthy data processing
In particular, a data trust needs to fulfil two
functions. First, it needs to be an arena in
which data processing and data science can
take place transparently, allowing data
controllers to be held accountable. On top of
this, it should also allow data scientists to
interact and debate what constitutes
trustworthy behaviour in their profession.
Second, the data trust also needs to be an
interface between data scientists, data
subjects and other stakeholders. This should
allow stakeholders both to hold data scientists
to account themselves, and also to inject their
own views about what constitutes
trustworthy behaviour by data scientists (i.e.

what they trust data scientists to do). Delacroix and Lawrence argue that “it is unclear what, if anything, such frameworks have in common with the Trust structures” that we find in English law (2018), but I will argue in the course of this paper that data trusts can take quite a lot of inspiration from, even if they cannot actually be, legal trusts.

We also should note the long list of agents who have a need for trust. Data controllers need to trust that their data will not be misused by data users. Data users need to trust that the data they get access to is of high quality and good provenance. Data subjects need to trust that data about them will not be used to harm (or even to irritate) them. And all data scientists need to trust that untrustworthy practices will be stamped out – trust in data science as a whole suffers with each Cambridge Analytica story. The data trust is not just about the trust of data subjects, but of many more. It follows that there is no ‘one size fits all’ data trust, but a range of models should be available, as argued, for different reasons, in (Delacroix & Lawrence 2018). The structures described in this paper are intended to be extremely flexible, in order to foster the trust of different communities, not just the data subject, unlike most previous research (Edwards 2004, Delacroix & Lawrence 2018).

One final preparatory caveat: I have already used the term ‘data controller’, which is a term of art from data protection law referring to the person who determines the purposes for which and the manner in which personal

data is processed, i.e. exercises overall
control. The trust issues that arise in data
sharing are not restricted to the sharing of
personal data; non-personal data can be
sensitive too, if for different reasons. In this
paper, I will use the term ‘data controller’
loosely to mean whoever exercises control
over any dataset in a data trust, whether or
not it is personal data, and consequently,
whenever I refer to data or datasets, I make
no assumption that the data is personal data
unless stated explicitly. However, if I refer to
the data subjects of a dataset, naturally that
implies that the dataset contains personal
The structure of the paper is as follows. The
next section looks at the notion of trust, how
trust in the use of data is currently promoted,
and how it could be. The following section
considers some of the ethical issues, on the
understanding that the regulatory
background, which in the UK and EU is based
around the General Data Protection
Regulation, is not sufficient for maintaining
trust. Next, I speculate about what kind of
architecture might implement a data trust.
The penultimate section examines in some
detail the parallels and divergences between a
trust in law and a data trust on Hall and
Pesenti’s and the ODI’s pragmatic, practical
view, and argues that a data trust can take
inspiration for its structure from the legal
concept of a trust, but it should and could not
actually be a legal trust. Finally, a concluding
section will revisit the topic of trust.

Trust and trustworthiness

Data processing is highly regulated. There are different jurisdictions across the globe, but the EU’s GDPR has set high standards, and combined them with powerful punishments (fines of tens of millions of euros are possible), with the aims of making data controllers more accountable, and of helping data subjects to ensure that their preferences are respected, and that personal data held about them is accurate, proportionate and not excessive. The GDPR regime has been criticised for being too powerful, although it sets a useful international benchmark. The US regime is patchier, covering some sectors more than others, resulting in a focus on sensitivity and the potential for harm; health data, financial data, and data about children are regulated more than less problematic data.

Yet there is still something of a trust deficit around data processing, despite these regulatory regimes. While this may be surprising at first blush (and indeed at the time of writing, GDPR is relatively new and so could reassure more people once the lines of its practical operation become clearer), some reflection on the data protection regime will make it clearer why it is not well set up to support trust in this area.

To begin with, trust is a relative term – X trusts Y to do something in a particular context (O’Hara 2012). The data protection regime is set up to support one particular type of X and one particular type of action; the X in question is a data subject, and the action is the processing of personal data from which X is identifiable. This already limits the regime in two important ways. First, regulation is often, and inevitably, behind the curve of innovation. The Data Protection Directive of 1995 was painstakingly developed for a standalone database world, just as the World Wide Web came along to make linking data easier. Similarly, the GDPR of 2018 protects us against many of the excesses of the Web, just

as big data came along, allowing decisions to
be made about us and profiles attached to us
without any input from personal data, which
is anonymised or aggregated out of scope.
The focus on personal data is already too
weak to protect us from all the inappropriate
interventions that data processing can afford.
Second, many of the trust problems that
concern Hall and Pesenti (2017), and also the
ODI researchers, go beyond the problems of
the data subject, covering the doubts of data
providers, data consumers and other
stakeholders. Data protection does little for
the concerns of these stakeholders.
There are also deeper reasons why even an
overhauled data protection regime is not well-
placed to support trust, which I will consider
in the next subsection.

Rights and neoliberalism

The data protection regime combines two
complementary ideological positions. In the
first place, data protection is part of a rights-
based approach. The individual is perceived to
be in possession of certain rights, which she
can use to defend herself against harm. The
European Convention on Human Rights of
1953, developed in the aftermath of the
horrors of Nazi Germany, included an article
enshrining her rights to a private life. Data
protection regimes add more detailed rights
to this basic idea; the GDPR grants a right of
access to data subjects to see their own
personal data, as well as some rights to erase
personal data held by others, rights to
explanations of decisions made about them
on the basis of algorithmic processes, and so
on. In many cases, data processing can be
consented to via a contract between subject
and processor. The Charter of Fundamental
Rights of the European Union of 2000 includes
rights both to privacy and data protection.
Yet the original Data Protection Directive was
conceived in the context of the European
Single Market, and so has a dual aspect – it
gave data subjects some rights to protect
their privacy, and gave data controllers rights

to gain value from the data. Following it, the GDPR also protects some data sharing practices, and aim to provide a framework for data controllers to process personal data accountably in a stable and predictable environment. From this angle, the data subject is seen as the defender of her own interests in a complex marketplace. This neoliberal view of the data protection regime sits alongside other mechanisms where the onus is on the individual to understand and express her own preferences, and to ensure they are met, where possible, through her own efforts. Such mechanisms include consent regimes, which envisage data subject and data controller entering into a contract when the consent button is pressed, and personal data stores, where the data subject undertakes some administration of her own personal data. Tim Berners-Lee’s recent promotion of ‘personal online data stores’ (pods) falls into this category.

These twin approaches of rights and neoliberalism each have several merits which I will not review here. However, neither of them is very conducive to the development of trust. There are two reasons for this, one major and one minor. The minor reason is that they focus on particular projects for processing data, and rely on the individual pushing back where she believes that she may be harmed, or at least may not benefit from, such projects. This is small scale; the individual is supposedly trying to ensure that various detailed rules are followed. Yet trust is a big picture view of the world, not a detailed vision of how people should behave. A trustor expects a trustee to look out for her interests in various, possibly unspecified, ways. The patient (at least, one without medical training) does not trust the doctor to carry out specific, detailed procedures; she trusts the doctor to make her well. The saver does not trust his accountant to put so much of his money here and so much of his money there, but rather trusts her to maximise his income or security according to his general appetite

for risk, and trusts her not to benefit herself
over and above the fees he pays her. Trust is
not legalistic; a technical breach of the rules
will be overlooked in a trusting relationship,
as long as the intentions behind the breach
were benign and the consequences not too
terrible. Indeed, in many technical areas, the
individual may not even know what her own
interests are, and will trust professionals not
only to defend her interests, but also to
define them. Data protection, on the other
hand, is a legalistic regime, giving the data
subject too narrow a focus to generate trust
in the way her data is handled overall.
Secondly, both the rights-based approach and
neoliberalism place too much onus on the
individual. The individual is to defend her
rights. This is, as is frequently argued, quite a
burden. Most have better things to do, and
few have the expertise to do it well (Delacroix
& Lawrence 2018). Even if the individual
engages, she will find herself with quite a
burden as she tries to deal with giant
corporations under conditions of asymmetric
knowledge. For example, when the data
subject signs a consent form or clicks a privacy
policy, she rarely understands what this
actually means, and so the contract between
the two parties is one-sided to say the least.
But most importantly, both the rights-based
approach and neoliberalism are products of a
lack of trust, assume trust is in short supply,
and make trust difficult to build. The
relationship between the individual and the
other is deliberately set up antagonistically. In
the rights arena, the individual is warned that
the world is full of potential threats to her
well-being, and by bad actors who will not
treat her with the dignity proper to a human
being, and that she therefore needs
conventions and courts to protect her. Under
neoliberalism, which aims to expand freedom
by shrinking public space and growing the
powers of private actors under market
conditions, the individual is told that she must
pursue her own interests, because no-one
else will do it for her. Under neither of these

conditions is the individual (or the other, for that matter) incentivised to seek out the compromise or to initiate the dialogue that will enable them to bootstrap trust where it is not pre-existing.

Social licence

Ensuring that data processing is trusted needs a different approach. The operation of a technology or technocratic policy requires some kind of big picture approach to act as the locus of trust. One way of viewing this is to see data science as analogous to other kinds of technological intervention that need to be accepted by a community and other relevant stakeholders before they can operate successfully or profitably. Doctors need to be trusted by their patients (Carter et al 2015), and those drilling or mining for natural resources need to be trusted by stakeholders, particularly the local community (Gallois et al 2017), if coercion is not to be used. These technological interventions are often justified using the resources of a profession , such as professional codes of conduct. The profession and its resources provide the big picture crucial for trust. At the moment, data science is only beginning to develop its professional standing. There are plenty of rules – GDPR provides plenty – but they haven’t solved the trust problem, and more rules will not help.

The sociologist Everett Hughes provided the valuable notions of licence and mandate (1958). Licence is ‘granted’ informally by society for some occupational groups to carry out activities that are part of the job, and members of those groups claim a ‘mandate’ to define what proper conduct looks like. This produces what Hughes called a “moral division of labour”, where society and profession collaborate in “the setting of the boundaries of realms of social behaviour and the allocation and responsibility of power over them”. This is a negotiation. The delicate and informal nature of the licence provides no guarantee that trust will be preserved if the professional goes too far – Carter et al describe how the highly trusted medical

profession in the UK presided over the
disastrous roll-out of the care.data scheme to
use primary care data for medical research
and other purposes (2015).
Key to the negotiation of a social licence is
communication. As (O’Hara 2012) argues,
trust involves aligning the trustors’ and the
trustees’ understanding of what the trustee is
committed to, which involves communicating
clearly and precisely what the trustees’
intentions are. If the trustors fail to
understand precisely what the trustees intend
to do, then their trust may be based on false
assumptions, and their trust could be
misplaced, despite the trustees’ behaving in a
perfectly trustworthy manner by their own
lights. Communication requires engagement
and response, and trust will be more
forthcoming if the would-be trustees have a
good track record for responsive practice in
the past (Gallois et al 2017). Furthermore,
communication needs to be a genuine
dialogue, not merely the broadcasting of what
from the scientific point of view are truisms
expressed in jargon; engagement is required
to seek a vocabulary that is meaningful to
both sides of the conversation. Furthermore
the trustors’ attitudes towards evidence and
their risk assessments also need to be
understood and accommodated (O’Hara
2012). Gallois and colleagues argue that
communication accommodation theory is a
good frame for the necessary engagement
(Giles 2016, Gallois et al 2017).

Data trusts as explorations of


A data trust, then, could serve the data
science profession as a focus for a social
licence, and a locus in which the social
mandate could be negotiated. The data trust
would specify a set of boundaries and
responsibilities for data controllers, and give
the controllers a space in which they could
negotiate the social mandate for their
profession. The data trust would then have a
clear set of aims.

Firstly, unlike the rights approach or the neoliberal approach inherent in data protection, its starting point would be the compromise between trustor and trustee that is essential for creating trust in the first place. This involves genuine mutual communication and consultation. Trust may be hard to build – trust of data processing is all of a piece with trust of companies (or government), of global capitalism (or state power), of security and infrastructure, and so on.

Secondly, again unlike the other two approaches, the expertise of the data scientist is a central part of the picture. For example, sending the data subject a notification of where his data has been sent, and which third parties now have it in their control, whether anonymised or fully personal data, is well- meant transparency, but hardly useful to the data subject (O’Neill 2009), who not only has better things to do but who also may struggle to understand a highly complex document containing several names of companies of which he has probably not heard, performing actions, such as auctioning adverts, whose significance is unclear to him, and which may not do him any tangible harm. In the rights- based and neoliberal approaches, the data subject is on his own. With a data trust, data scientists can (and should) engage with data subjects and other stakeholders to determine what kind of treatment of data is acceptable, and the scientists themselves may well, if they present themselves sympathetically, be able to inject a good deal of their expertise into this discussion. They might then be able, if they can take their stakeholders with them in the conversation, to determine to a large extent which data processing is probably OK, and which not. Individual data subjects may not care, or be interested in engaging, but in a big data repository, enough subjects, or representative groups, may be able to feed in opinions. The data scientists should absolutely not assume, ab initio , that they have a monopoly of rationality, and that merely stating their case should be enough to win

everyone round. Trust of expert systems is a
complex matter. The data scientist needs to
earn the mandate to impose and defend the
standards of the profession.
Thirdly, the data trust would be a centre for
data processing that could be used to hold
data scientists accountable, auditing how they
treat the data and who is allowed access.
Fourthly, and relatedly, the data trust would
aid transparency by being inspectable and
scrutable. This would allow individual data
subjects to complain and intervene, as with
the data protection approach. More to the
point, however, this would also allow
representative groups (e.g. patients’ groups,
or taxpayers’ representatives) to monitor data
use. But the real advantage of a data trust is
that it would allow data scientists to be
transparent and accountable to their peers.
Data scientists all suffer by untrustworthy
behaviour in the profession. For example,
Facebook claims innocence in the case of
Cambridge Analytica, but even if this is
justified, it has suffered reputational damage
because of its association. So have some of
the political campaigns which employed
Cambridge Analytica. A data trust,
importantly, would provide an arena in which
data scientists could clean up their own act.
Finally, a data trust might even help with
determining which processing is legal. GDPR
provides for a number of grounds for data
processing, of which one of the most
important is consent. If a data trust were well-
enough known and trusted, then it might
become the focus of consent. Data subjects
would be asked at collection time whether
they consented to the use of their data within
a (specified?) data trust, for purposes
consistent with the principles underlying the
trust. This has the advantage of being clear
and flexible, resisting the GDPR’s tendency to
close down big data opportunities, without
succumbing to a hopeless determinism about
the rise of big data. The data trust itself could
also be a convenient point of contact for a

data subject who wished to withdraw consent at a later date.

The data trust would have to obey the law, naturally. However, this would not be its raison d’être. As we have seen, merely being legal is not sufficient to support trust. It follows from this that the data trust should be a voluntary arrangement, rather than mandated by law. If the latter, the trust could easily descend into a box-ticking exercise, as data protection often does. The point of the data trust is to signal and to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the data processing. Voluntary participation is an important part of the signal.

Put another way, legislation and regulation constrain data processing, but not sufficiently to promote widespread trust. If it would promote trust beyond that promoted by centralised regulation, the data trust should act as a further constraint on data processing, beyond what is ruled out by law. Such voluntary constraint, when credible, is a means of promoting trust. This shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a cost to the data processor, however, as the result of trust may well be the creation of more opportunities for processing as a result (more collaborations, more data subjects willing to give consent, especially open-ended consent, greater

supply of data under fewer formal
conditions). Hence the voluntary constraints
imposed by a data trust may liberate the
processor to achieve more.
I have so far written mainly of trust. In fact,
the key issue is the trustworthiness of the
processing. Trust and trustworthiness are two
sides of the same coin: trustworthiness is the
virtue of reliably meeting one’s commitments,
while trust is the belief of another that the
trustee is trustworthy (O’Hara 2012). Trust
without trustworthiness is a severe
vulnerability. Hence what is needed is a
means for (a) establishing the parameters of
trustworthy data science, and
(b) demonstrating to would-be trustors that
the data science is indeed trustworthy, so that
they could be confident that their trust is
A data trust should be means to both of these
ends. As an arena for data scientists to share
and process data, it should enable the
debates and discussions about what counts as
trustworthy behaviour to take place. As an
interface between data scientists and data
subjects (and other stakeholders), it should
enable the engagement to take place that will
signal trustworthiness, and also allow the
other stakeholders to help determine what
constitutes trustworthiness.


As noted earlier, there is a trust deficit around data processing despite the increasingly powerful legal regime in the EU based around the GDPR. Regulation will not, of itself, create trust, although it may be one of the means for stamping out untrustworthy behaviour; similarly for consent and contracts. As argued earlier, they simply operate at the wrong level, and in this case do not support an already existing social licence.

As well as regulation, an ethical regime is needed to help create that licence, so that the data scientist’s actions can be judged not only legal or illegal, but also right or wrong, and ultimately that the data scientist can be judged to be virtuous or vicious. Data trusts could catalyse the development of such an ethical regime, in which the data scientist is seen as someone acting not only in her own interests, but also as someone acting in (or against) the interests of her stakeholders. The data trust would be the means of ensuring that stakeholders’ interests were considered in any decisions made about processing. Of course, no data scientist should process data illegally, but the data trust could be the means for deciding whether legal data processing was in stakeholders’ interests, against them, or neutral. If the processing was against their interests, then the governance structures of the trust should be sufficient to hold the data scientist to account.

Rules will not cut it; they can always be bent. Even when the letter of the law is adhered to, its spirit may not be. Rules cannot do justice to the sheer complexity of ethical life, which varies so much by context. They struggle therefore to distinguish trustworthy and untrustworthy behaviour. Trustworthiness is a virtue, and the neo-Aristotelian language of virtue ethics is helpful here.

A key notion in virtue ethics is that of human flourishing. The virtuous person promotes human flourishing. Happily, this phrase was

used in the British Academy and the Royal
Society’s report on data management, an
important starting point for working out the
appropriate stance for ethical data science:
“The promotion of human flourishing is the
overarching principle that should guide the
development of systems of data governance”
(British Academy & Royal Society 2017).
Promoting flourishing is not something for
which rules can be written; rather, this is
something that must be reasoned case-by-
case, using what is called practical wisdom
which is sensitive to context (Lovibond 2002).
A data scientist with such practical wisdom
will look after data virtuously, not only making
the right decision in any particular case, but
able to plan ahead and consider other
variables in her deliberations. She will be able
to express her wisdom to others, and in
particular to engage with stakeholders, stating
her case in a way that is meaningful to them,
and responding to their replies by adjusting
and revising her plans if necessary. These
abilities are central to practical wisdom, and
also central to the creation and maintenance
of trust.
There is no exact characterisation of the right
ethical framework to help data scientists
develop practical wisdom to promote human
flourishing – ‘human flourishing’ itself is a
(deliberately) vague term in this respect. In
the rest of this section, I will consider a recent
framework for data stewardship which might
help provide some guidance.

Example of an ethical framework: the


The Anonymisation Decision-Making
Framework (ADF – Elliot et al 2016) was
developed to support the complex task of
anonymising data, under the legal regime of
the Data Protection Directive in the EU. It was
developed by the UKAN organisation, a joint
venture of the Universities of Manchester and
Southampton, the ODI, and the Office for
National Statistics. It was adapted for the
Australian data protection regime as the De-

Identification Decision-Making Framework (DDF – O’Keeffe et al 2017), and is currently under further development to bring it into line with GDPR.

It is therefore a work in progress, but the aim here is simply to show how the framework might help inform the ethical principles underlying virtuous data stewardship in a data trust. Other principles could be followed; much would depend on the context, the domain, the potential for harm, and the nature of the stakeholders whose trust was being sought. The point about the ADF is that it is a framework, not an algorithm or a set of rules or a set of boxes to tick to anonymise data; anonymisation is an art as much as a science, and the ADF is designed to reflect that. It requires, not the ability to follow rules, but rather to exercise practical wisdom in responsible data stewardship.

Let me also emphasise that the use of this example, of an anonymisation methodology, does not mean that all data in a data trust should be anonymised (although some of it may be). It is rather that the ADF contains principles for responsible data stewardship that may be applicable outside its intended sphere.

The ADF consists of three main activities, divided into subcomponents (Elliot et al 2016). Because we are not concerned with anonymisation per se , we do not concern ourselves here with the second activity, which contains the technical processes of disclosure risk assessment and control. We are concerned with the first activity, which is an audit of the data situation, and the third, impact management.

Data situation audit

Ethical data stewardship must involve understanding the flow of data and its ramifications. In the ADF, this involves various aspects, including understanding what use cases there are for the data, and mapping how data would flow in these cases. It also involves understanding the legal issues

surrounding the data, not least the basis for
processing (and if this is consent, consent for
There are two particularly crucial aspects of
the data situation audit. The first is
understanding stakeholders’ trust in the
system. This is not simply whether this is high
or low, but also what the stakeholders
understand the data controller to be
committed to, and for whom. Note that the
stakeholders’ understanding of the data
controller’s commitments may be different
from the data controller’s understanding. It
might also take into account the warrants or
reasons for stakeholders’ trust.
The second concerns the idea of a data
environment. The insight of the ADF is that
whether data is anonymous is not a function
of the data alone. Much depends on the
context in which data is held. Anonymity is
also not a binary; the point of anonymisation
is to reduce the risk of reidentification via the
data to a negligible level, not to transform the
data permanently. As the context changes, so
will the risk. Much therefore hangs on the
To express this, the ADF introduces the notion
of a data environment as a technical term
(Mackey & Elliot 2013). The data environment
is characterised by four things: the agents
who have access to the data; any other data
to which the data can easily be linked; the
governance of the data; and the infrastructure
used to store it, including hardware,
representation languages and cybersecurity
measures. Data will typically be held, or
planned to be held, in a range of data
environments, all of which need to be
mapped and understood by data controllers
(the aggregation of the data environments is
referred to in the ADF as the data situation ).
The data environments are important within
the ADF because they will help determine
whether data is, or will be, anonymous in the
sense that no-one could reasonably be likely
to identify individuals from the dataset.

Outside of the anonymisation methodology, understanding of the data environments in which the data is held will help data controllers estimate risks to privacy or other types of well-being of the data subjects.

Note that the methodology could also easily be applied to non-personal data as well. Part of the problem of privacy in the big data era is that non-personal data can be influential in individuals’ lives, for example via profiling. Or non-personal data can be combined by an intruder with other data that she holds to find out more about a target. The boundary between personal and non-personal data (or personally-identifying data from non- identifying data, in US terms) is no longer the same as the boundary between risky and safe data, even if the boundary is clear (which is doubtful).

The output of the data situation audit, then, will be a greater understanding of the context in which data is held, including the attitudes of the stakeholders, and the evidence needed to estimate the risk of an attempt to use the data for illicit purposes. The data trust can help fix much of the context of any shared or potentially sharable data, and so enable increasing precision in reasoning about the risks involved with sharing data.

Impact management

The second important aspect of the ADF which could be imported into a data trust is the plan for managing the impact of a data breach. This area of data management is often overlooked, so responses to emergencies are often ad hoc , opaque and improvised. The immediate instinct of an organisation is to minimise liability, which can result in slow responses and even dissembling, while messaging is cleared with lawyers. The result is an apparent shiftiness, which is easily taken as a signal of untrustworthiness. Even if the organisation has done everything it could and is not to blame for the breach, an ill-thought-out communication strategy gives an impression

of a cover up, that it has something to hide. At
best, it means that the organisation is focused
on its own problems of liability, and not on
the harms to its stakeholders.
The data trust therefore does need to have
plans in place to deal with the worst. The
exact details of course cannot be predicted,
but it is important that a response is lined up,
and the people expected to deal with it, and
to communicate with stakeholders, as well as
to initiate any procedures within the trust
itself, should be trained and ready for their
Impact management in the ADF has three
components. First, there needs to be a plan
about how data sharing will be managed.
Within a data trust, much of this will be
standardised within the trust’s governance
and architecture. It will also include
monitoring the new environments in which
the data is held. For example, if dataset A is
shared with organisation O, does O hold other
datasets that will enable the inference of
sensitive data? If dataset A is a database of
children, does O hold a dataset B of mothers
of babies, which might be combined with A to
discover underage mothers in a region, far
more sensitive information? If so, then the
new environment for dataset A needs to be
specified so that there is a strong firewall
between A and B, and it would be O’s
responsibility to ensure that it is in place. O’s
new arrangements should also be transparent
within the trust, so that it can be held
accountable if its arrangements are
The second component is to plan how to
communicate with stakeholders, particularly
in the event that something goes wrong. This
involves each organisation in the data trust
maintaining a line of communication with
stakeholders in the data it holds. It may not
need direct communication with every
stakeholder, e.g. every data subject in a set of
personal data. However, if the stakeholders’
trust is to be maintained, each organisation

within a data trust will need to be able to keep them informed.

Finally, a plan is needed for when things go wrong. If there is a data breach, how can it be closed down quickly? Who needs to be informed, by whom, and with what messaging? If an organisation within the data trust is held accountable, how will it be disciplined? Will it be expelled? If so, how will this be managed, for instance if it has shared valuable data with other organisations in the trust.

The ethical anchor of a data trust

The shape of the data trust is becoming clear when we consider the ethical requirements. Organisations will bring data to the trust to share with each other under specified ethical conditions. Each organisation, therefore, must commit to a common set of ethical standards which will be determined by the trust itself. The commitment must be voluntary, but there must be measures which can be taken against organisations that do not live up to their commitments.

I argued above that, given that detailed rules are not very effective at engendering trust, and given that trustworthiness is a virtue, a virtue-based ethic looks appropriate. This also fits in with the idea floated by the British Academy and the Royal Society that ethical

data stewardship should support human
flourishing, which has been the goal of virtue
ethics since Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics ,
where it is called eudaimonia. We also see
that rule-following or box-ticking needs to be
supplemented by context-sensitive practical
wisdom, or what Aristotle called Phronesis.
A data trust therefore needs to develop
methods to support data controllers’ practical
wisdom, or pragmatic practices, for
understanding and acting in the interests of
the relevant stakeholders, in the sense of
enabling them to flourish. This requirement
does not determine any specific ethical code,
although it seems clear that trustworthy,
virtuous data stewardship should involve the
virtues of caring , for the interests of the
stakeholders, and prudence , the ability to
discipline oneself and to manage the risks one
undertakes, both in one’s own interests and in
the interests of those with whom we have
I have also argued that certain aspects of the
ADF could usefully be repurposed to fulfil
some of the caring and prudential aspects of
data management. Indeed, I would claim that
the ADF constitutes an approach to virtuous
data stewardship in itself. Hence the ADF
could be taken off the shelf as an important
part of the ethical basis for a data trust.


A data trust could simply be an arrangement of governance or a legal agreement. However, it is possible to imagine that many of the institutions or practices that would support trustworthiness within the trust could be programmed into an architecture, and reasonable to believe that this would be desirable. In this section, I will consider what some of these desiderata might be, and then sketch an architecture, based on an existing model, that might underlie a data trust.

The basic idea of a data trust is a virtual place where data is made available to share. Different organisations would bring data to the trust. The trust would not need to store data. We can think in terms of a membership model: different organisations would be members of the trust, which would mean that they would (i) be either data controllers bringing data to the trust for sharing, or data users wishing to share data via the trust, or both, and (ii) agree to abide by the ethical principles underlying the data trust.

Desirable properties of a data trust


Many of the properties of a data trust architecture will fall out of this specification of how the trust should operate. In this section, I will set out 8 properties that would seem to be important in many if not all contexts where trustworthy data sharing needed to take place. Different conceptions of data trusts may require a different set.

  1. Discovery. Potential users need to be able to discover the existence, properties and quality of the data in the first place.
  2. Provenance. Potential users need to be able to assess the quality of data, by getting access to metadata about its provenance and other properties. The system within which they gain access should also be able to generate
an account of the provenance of the
new operations on the data.
  1. Access controls. Data controllers need to be able to retain control over who gets access. Users need to engage with data controllers to discuss the terms and conditions for sharing. The liability for data protection breaches, therefore, remains with the data controllers where the data is personal.
  2. Access. If appropriate, users need a mechanism to get access to the data. Access need not be unconditional, and could be mediated, or be to a limited quantity of the data, or to a redacted, anonymised or pseudonymised version.
  3. Identity management. Data controllers need to be able to identify those attempting to get access through time.
  4. Auditing of use. A record of uses of data needs to be generated and stored. This needs to be transparent, so that it can be checked for compliance with the law, and compliance with the ethical principles agreed by trust members.
  5. Accountability. Ultimately, data controllers are accountable for the use of the data under their control, and the audit must enable them to be held accountable for misuse. Similarly, those receiving data and misusing it must also be held accountable.
  6. Impact. The value, use and misuse of data also ought to be assessed via the records kept in the data trust.

A Data Trust Portal

In this section, I will sketch out an architecture
which I will call a Data Trust Portal (DTP). This
is not the only architecture that would fit the
8 desiderata given above, but it does fit the
bill. I take inspiration here from the idea of a
Web Observatory used in Web Science as a
means of sharing data on and about the Web

safely and ethically (Tiropanis et al 2013, Tiropanis et al 2014, Tinati et al 2015). Many of the ideas are extended or adapted for the specific needs of a data trust. The suggested DTP architecture is shown in Fig.1.

Note that the data does not get into the DTP at all; the DTP is not a data store, nor a distributed database. The data is held by the original data controllers, in their own controlled environments, and they retain their data protection responsibilities if the data is personal data. They do not transfer the data (unless they wish to), and remain in ultimate control of access. Different datasets can be treated differently. If, for example, they would only allow data users to access the data on specific premises, e.g. a safe haven with no Internet access, then that is their decision. If they are happy for a copy of the data to be transferred to a user, then they can design the arrangements for this, including creating their own terms and conditions, and can determine any rights for the data users to transfer the data to a third party. Data sharing arrangements can be automated, and the

automation can apply to all, or only some, of
the datasets. Access to the data need not be
free; nothing in this arrangement precludes
charging for access. Sharing data on a data
trust should not entail surrendering control. In
this way, data controllers’ trust of the sharing
process should be maintained, because they
only relinquish control on their own terms
(this meets property 3 above). Note also that
individuals (who might also be beneficiaries)
could bring their own data (e.g. from
wearable wellbeing devices) to the data trust
as well, if they were willing and able to abide
by its ethical terms. They could share their
own data with other data controllers, or even,
if they had the expertise, ask for access to
other datasets to make their own data more
They post metadata into the DTP, into a
metadata store; this could be any metadata
felt useful, but should include provenance, or
provenance summaries (meeting property 2),
and also basic information about size,
content, representational schema, etc. The
metadata are used to build a searchable

Figure 1 : Architecture for a Data Trust portal

dataset catalogue , of all the datasets available in the DTP (this meets property 1). The data trust need not only deal in raw data, but could also share useful analysis tools and visualisations of the data, either created by the data controllers themselves, or by data users.

A DTP will need a relatively centralised management to ensure accountability, although it may adopt a peer-to-peer structure if peers were trusted to hold each other accountable. They would each have incentives to do this, since one untrustworthy member of a data trust could taint all the others. The management component would include managing the identities of those supplying and those consuming data (property 5), creating and maintaining the ethical code, and providing an audit trail of all data use via the trust (properties 6, 7 and 8). The portal itself would be a platform, where data controllers and users are enabled to meet to work out their arrangements; the data consumer will find the data he is interested in in the catalogue, and then approach the data controller via sharing protocols to negotiate the terms upon which he will be allowed to share the data (property 4). He may, of course, be refused access at any time, perhaps because the data are so sensitive that only certain data users would be

allowed access, or perhaps because the
conditions placed on the data sharing are so
stringent that the costs outweigh the benefits
of access.
The Web Observatory which inspires this
architecture was conceived as a potential
network of observatories (Tiropanis et al
2014). This would not hold with a DTP; in
order to maintain the ethical standards set
out by the data trust, linking with other data
trusts would of necessity involve ensuring that
standards were and remained compatible and
equally high. Much would depend on the
specific architecture, and of the make-up of
the trust. For instance, a public service DTP
run by a city partnership to share data about
that city might link to a similar DTP run by
another city, allowing the sharing of data,
under controlled conditions, between service
providers in the two cities.
In general, the trust problems of data sharing
could be addressed gradually by this
structure; a data controller could advertise
data, but only share it under stringent
conditions (or not at all) until he was satisfied
that the data trust was promoting trustworthy
behaviour. As he became more convinced, he
could gradually increase his commitment to
sharing within the trust, if he was comfortable
doing that.

For reasons to be discussed in this section, it is probably too complex a project to make a data trust a literal trust, in the sense of the 3- party fiduciary arrangement that developed in English common law. In general terms, this is partly because the proposed arrangement in the data trust differs from the property arrangements typical of a trust, and partly because a trust is a development of common law, and is not always found in civil law jurisdictions (Penner 2016, 52ff.). However, the notion of a trust, in which property is owned and managed by a trustee for the benefit of a beneficiary, could still inspire the ideas inherent in a data trust.

Appropriately, trusts emerged from the medieval Court of Chancery, which existed alongside courts of law to ensure equity, that is, to provide remedies when the strict operation of law produced injustice. Equity is therefore, in its origins at least, reflective of ethical considerations rather than legal ones; it did not rest on how the law stood, but on how people should act ‘in good conscience’. We can see a data trust as playing a similar sort of role – expressing how data controllers should behave in good conscience, rather than merely working out what is legal for them to do.

It is worth pointing out that trusts can be voluntary, or established by law (TABOLs – Trusts Arising By Operation of Law). I have argued above that participation in a trust should be voluntary, and so the law should not determine that a trust has to be set up. The data trusts I describe here are analogous to express trusts, that is, they are intentionally set up for a purpose (Penner 201 6, 16, Delacroix & Lawrence 2018). There is also no central register of trusts; (Hall & Pesenti 2017) argue that a Data Trusts Support Organisation should be set up. This might provide a register of data trusts, even if an incomplete one, which would enable their discovery, and the dissemination of

experience and best practice (i.e. the
development of professional standards).
We might describe a TABOL as a top-down
type of trust, where law mandates the
creation of a certain type of structure. Others
have described a bottom-up style, where data
subjects would compel their data to be
managed by trustees, and would set the
terms of its management (Delacroix &
Lawrence 2018). The proposal of (Hall &
Pesenti 2017), explored in this paper, is rather
a middle-out style, where the data controllers
are prime movers, wanting to maintain
warranted trust without losing control. I
would argue that the top-down approach
would require some legislation in a world
where the full effects of GDPR are not yet
known, which would be not only unlikely but
positively unwise. The bottom-up approach,
as with many others such as personal data
stores and indeed the data protection regime
as a whole (see above), requires a somewhat
proactive attitude from data subjects; it is not
impossible to imagine, but would
undoubtedly place a burden on data subjects
however willing a cohort of trustees can be
mustered (it is noted as a ‘challenge’ by
Delacroix and Lawrence). The proposal of
(Edwards 2004) that a data trust is created
whenever data subjects share personal data
with data collectors is the extreme example of
a bottom-up data trust, and of course in such
case the trusts must be ‘implied’ rather than
express (Delacroix & Lawrence 2018). Apart
from the administrative difficulties this
complexity would produce, it also misses the
point that, in our age of aggregation,
anonymisation and profiling, it is not only
personal data which could cause problems for
individuals. The middle-out approach has not
been explored in detail, and has many
pragmatic points to commend it as a ‘good
enough’ solution to a social problem that does
not concern everyone.
A trust has three specific roles – the settlor ,
who creates the trust, writes its terms, and
disposes of the property (Penner 2016, 25);

the trustee , who owns and manages the property; and the beneficiary , who receives the benefits of the property. In the case of a data trust, the settlor is the person or group who sets up the trust and defines its remit. The trustees are the data controllers who remain in charge of the data, as can be seen in Fig.1. That leaves the beneficiaries.

Who are the beneficiaries?

There are many candidates to be the potential beneficiaries of the data trust. Much will depend on the purpose of the trust, as defined by the settlor, and on whose trust is being solicited. Each different potential set of beneficiaries will demand different principles and different structures. Potential beneficiaries include:

its customers that its practices have
changed by joining a data trust.
Not all these beneficiaries can be pleased all
at once. The purpose of the data trust should
realistically be to benefit one or two of these
classes of beneficiary. The rules and ethical
principles of the trust should be tailored to
create the optimal signals of trustworthiness
to those classes. Hence a data trust designed
to create trust among data providers may look
very different from a data trust designed to
promote trust among data subjects. And it
may be that some individuals might contest a
definition of ‘beneficiary’, for example if a
‘local’ scheme is seen to benefit companies or
outsiders not thought of as local by the
community itself (Gallois et al 2017, 51). The
concept of a data trust to promote trust
should not be oversold (cf. Gallois et al 2017,
51). However, conversely, just because a data
trust is aimed at a particular class of
beneficiary, that does not mean that it cannot
also gain the trust of other communities. In
general, one would hope that trustworthy
data stewardship would raise the level of trust
all round.
Note once more that, depending on whose
trust is being solicited, the data trust may not
always deal in personal data. If – for example

How could a beneficiary benefit?

A trust is run for the benefit of the
beneficiaries (Penner 2016, 21-23). However,
this should not directly be the case of a data
trust. The data will be shared or processed for
the direct benefit of the sharers or processors.
In a standard property trust, the trustee
cannot run the property for her own benefit,

even if she and the beneficiary share the benefits. In contrast, a data trust is supposed to benefit those donating data to it (otherwise why would they take part at all?) even while the beneficiaries also benefit – see above – if only indirectly. In this section, I will speculate on some of the potential benefits, suggesting issues that data trust settlors should consider when drawing up terms and conditions.

It might be thought that a potential benefit for the beneficiaries is to get access to their data, as many advocates have argued in recent years. However, this is unlikely to be the case. In a traditional trust structure, the beneficiary has no rights to the property, only to the benefits from the property. So, for instance, if a trustee holds a house in trust for a beneficiary, the income, from rents for example, goes to the beneficiary. However, the beneficiary has no rights to use the house, so the trustee can sue the beneficiary for trespass if the latter enters the house without the trustee’s permission (Penner 2016, 18, 53).

A data trust might be set up deliberately to provide data subjects with access to ‘their’ data, but it need not be. The data could remain confidential and only shared within the trust; nothing about a data trust structure implies that the rights to access to the data should be extended beyond the current rights holders. On the other hand, a data subject could put her own data (e.g. from her own wearable devices) into the trust and she could enter as a trustee as well as a beneficiary, as noted earlier.

Furthermore, unlike the benefits of at least some trusts, the beneficiaries cannot sell or transfer the benefits onto third parties, unless there is express provision for this in the data trust. If the beneficiary has that status because of a special relationship with the data or the data controllers (e.g. that she is a data subject, or that she is a resident in a particular city or region), then that is the qualifying

factor and she cannot sell on the benefits,
which are anyway likely to be indirect.
That leaves open the question as to whether
the data controllers could sell the data, or
access to the data, to third parties outside the
trust, and whether, if so, some or all of the
income received should go to the
beneficiaries. That again will depend on the
terms of the data trust, but if at least some of
these tangible benefits do not go to the
beneficiaries, one would wonder what the
data trust was meant to achieve and exactly
how it was supposed to engender trust.
The settlor of a trust does not enforce its
terms; in law that is the job of the
beneficiaries themselves (Penner 2016, 25).
The main powers with respect to
beneficiaries’ rights are to be able to complain
about the behaviour of data controllers in the
trust, and to seek remedies. In a legal trust,
beneficiaries can sue a trustee for breach of
trust if they feel the latter is not acting in their
interests. How could this principle transfer to
the context of a data trust? The powers could
take one of two forms. It may be that
beneficiaries could demand that the data
from which they benefit should be used in a
particular way. Or alternatively, they could be
given rights to challenge any actual use of the
data, without any extra ability to be proactive.
Since a data trust would normally preserve
the arms-length relationship between the
beneficiaries and the data, the latter would
presumably be more common. I have already
argued that engagement with beneficiaries is
an important potential function for data
trusts; this, if implemented, would be a
formalisation of that engagement.
This is inversely connected with the powers
that the trust gives to the trustees. Trusts can
usually do one or more of three things. They
can impose a fixed duty on the trustee to do
something specific benefiting the
beneficiaries, or they can impose a duty to
achieve some outcome that benefits the
beneficiaries, while leaving it up to the trustee

to decide how to implement it, or they can give the trustee a right to do something that she is under no obligation to do (Penner 2016, 67ff). A data trust is likely to do one or both of the last two of these things, demanding that certain benefits go to the beneficiaries, or that certain costs do not, while leaving data controllers still in control of the data processing. The extent of those rights and duties will be related to the extent of the rights and privileges of the beneficiaries.

Can a data trust be a trust?

A legal trust is the inspiration for a data trust. However, data trusts are not trusts, without some clever crafting of its terms anyway (Delacroix & Lawrence 2018 would agree, I think, with this assertion about data trusts as I have described them, although they argue that the bottom-up trusts they advocate could be genuine trusts). As noted, the settlor (who need not be an individual, but may be a committee of all the relevant data controllers) must create the terms for membership of the trust, deciding questions such as what the ethical principles should be, who the beneficiaries are, what rights they have, what rights the data controllers have, what happens if a data controller goes bankrupt or the organisation fails, how controllers withdraw from the trust, whether controllers can process or share their data outside the trust, and so on. There are many templates from trust law about how to set these things up, but there are various reasons why data trusts would not behave as most ordinary trusts do.

First of all, we should note the reason given in the previous subsection, that data trusts are intended to benefit trustees (i.e. data controllers) directly, and may benefit beneficiaries only indirectly. Indeed, the trustees/data controllers in a data trust would hope to benefit twice over – once through the processing of the data, and again through the maintenance of trust of the beneficiaries. That may mean restrictions on what can be done with the data (e.g. perhaps it can’t be sold to

third parties), depending on the principles of
the data trust, which may mean that the
benefits of the data to the data controller
cannot be maximised as they could be outside
the trust. However, this kind of self-denial is
exactly what is supposed to foster trust of the
beneficiaries in the data controller, and is
therefore the whole point of being in the data
Delacroix and Lawrence (2018) argue that “a
fiduciary obligation towards data subjects is
incompatible with the data controllers’
responsibility towards shareholders”, and
indeed that this is “the only logical
conclusion” about the potential for conflict of
interest here. We should begin by noting that
this, if true, is only true of private sector for-
profit data controllers, and even then only if
we assume that the data controllers’ fiduciary
duty to shareholders totally outranks their
fiduciary duty to data subjects and other
stakeholders. However, even if we
concentrate on the private sector case under
that strict ordering of fiduciary duties, the
point of being in a data trust is to increase
trust in the handling of data. This could be
argued to be in the interests of even the most
rapacious shareholder in three ways. Firstly,
trust in a company is an aspect of goodwill,
one of its intangible assets. Reputation
damage can cause serious financial problems
for a company; Cambridge Analytica went out
of business within two months of its
scandalous data handling practices being
reported in the media. Secondly, building
trusting relations can help long-term
profitability, even at the cost of short-term
gain (this is the sort of puzzle often explored
in game theory, for example with the
prisoner’s dilemma). The data trust sketched
here could be the focus of a good deal of
reciprocal behaviour with long-terms benefits
over and above any short-term opportunity
costs. Thirdly, recall that in the proposal
sketched here, it is not necessarily the data
subjects whose trust is being sought (this
argument will not therefore concern Delacroix

& Lawrence 2018, who do focus on the data subject). The data trust sketched here is flexible enough to enable companies to develop robust relationships with all kinds of individuals and organisations, from data subjects through to those sharing data through even to regulators. Clearly this must be compatible with long-term profitability.

The second reason why data trusts are not congruent with the model of legal trusts, also noted earlier, is that trusts seem to flourish more in the common law world than in the world of civil law, partly because civil law jurisdictions tend to have a more binary view of property. Some civil law jurisdictions have trusts, including Quebec and Scotland (Penner 2016, 54-58), but not all, so if the trust has international pretensions, then it would need to be able to translate its terms into possibly unsympathetic legal regimes. If we simply take the idea of a trust as an inspiration rather than a strict code, this is less of an issue.

Thirdly, the data trust is a voluntary agreement with a specific purpose of supporting trustworthy behaviour. To that extent, it is not a permanent settlement of property, it is an agreement to conform to specific behavioural and ethical principles. It is time-limited, and it will always be possible for

those donating data to withdraw the data if
the data trust doesn’t meet their purposes.
Fourthly, the point of a trust is to develop and
support trustworthy behaviour and therefore
create warranted trust. Independent
oversight may be useful, but not in all cases.
In fact, it is quite plausible that in many cases,
especially when data controllers are already
trusted and merely wish to maintain existing
trust, that the settlors, the data controllers
and the trustees are the same people or
organisations. Under such an arrangement,
for example, it would be possible to audit
data use with a permissioned distributed
ledger where the peers are the trustees/data
It follows from all this that a data trust would
not be a literal trust, falling under the law of
equity. Rather, data trusts take legal trusts as
inspiration for a certain type of hands-off
arrangement involving fiduciary duties
(Penner 2016, 22ff., Delacroix & Lawrence
2018). The key point in any data trust is to
define, as part of its ethical principles, the
nature of the fiduciary duty of the trustees
toward the beneficiaries, and to hold trustees
to account against it. The fiduciary duty could
be expressed, for example, in the terms of the

Trust revisited

To conclude, the purpose of a data trust is to define trustworthy and ethical data stewardship, and disseminate best practice. The aim is not to increase trust, which many have claimed as an imperative. The aim, rather, is to align trust and trustworthiness, so that we trust trustworthy agents and do not trust untrustworthy ones, and conversely make it so that trustworthy agents are more likely to be trusted, and untrustworthy agents less likely to be trusted. In other words, the aim is to support warranted trust.

A data trust is not a mechanism for producing trust. Trust cannot be magicked out of nowhere, the trustor has to be persuaded of the trustworthiness of the trustee (O’Hara 2012). Therefore the trustee needs to handle data in a trustworthy way, to communicate his actions transparently to the trustors, and to be held accountable for those actions. Existing trust in an organisation, for example the UK National Health Service, or a city council, can be leveraged to bootstrap trust,

but even in that case trust still has to be
painstakingly maintained, as was discovered
in the care.data fiasco (Carter et al 2015).
All the would-be trustee can do is to behave
in a trustworthy manner, and engage with
trustors to understand their views and to
communicate his own. The trustee must not
make wild promises, or say what the trustors
want to hear – rather he needs to manage
expectations and only make credible
commitments. Although my approach differs
from that of Delacroix and Lawrence, I
certainly agree with their statement that “a
successful data Trust will be one whose
constitutional terms better encapsulate the
aspirations of a large part of the population”
To conclude, data trusts could help align trust
and trustworthiness via a concentration on
ethics, architecture and governance, allowing
data controllers to be transparent about their
processing and sharing, to be held
accountable for their actions, and to engage
with the community whose trust is to be

and to audiences at several events and meetings for tough questioning and kicking the tyres.


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