Do you still worship at the Temple of Big Data?

Major personal data breaches are happening at a rate of one a day – Equifax, BUPADeloitteNHSNottingham County CouncilIslington CouncilHCA Healthcare and many, many more. Wanna Cry? (I bet you do).

Do you live in fear of whether you’re next? It doesn’t have to be this way. We are transitioning to an era in which individuals have both the skills and the opportunities to choose how they manage and share their personal data to achieve a range of beneficial outcomes.

Digital evangelists like Stephen Deadman, Global Deputy Chief Privacy Officer at Facebook remains optimistic about the future, rather than terrified by it. He points out that more than a billion people on the planet use social media services every day to actively communicate and manage information about themselves to organisations and each other.

Innovation and economic growth through data, on the one hand, and the desire to preserve our fundamental rights in respect of that data, on the other shouldn’t be in tension or hang in the balance. But right now, they do.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and founding director of the World Wide Web Foundation, has consistently called for greater privacy on the web and for people to become the legal owners of their personal data in order to control how and when it’s used because of rampant identity theft and the invasion of personal and sensitive data that’s now a daily occurrence around the world.

But there’s another view. A more relaxed attitude towards the use of personal data and one that sees this as a liberating experience rather than one to be feared.

So who do you believe? And are we forced to make a binary decision on this? Is social media really ‘good’ or ‘bad’? The reality is it’s much more complicated.

Unfortunately, much of the debate about personal data confuses what might or could be happening with what’s actually happening.

“It’s difficult to conduct a mature debate or make workable policies without clearly distinguishing between fact and fiction, actual harms and potential harms, real risks and imagined risks” observes Ctrl-Shift, a special digital consultancy that works with social media giants like Facebook.

Any debate also needs to be informed by an equal consideration of the benefits and opportunities – actual and potential – but not at the cost of the rights, freedoms and interests of the citizen.

Looking to a brighter future, Sir Tim Berners-Lee predicts there’ll be faster networks and more intelligent computers using Artificial Intelligence (AI), a bit like the world depicted in the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise.

Data will no longer be ‘owned’ by big corporations with sophisticated CRM and data mining tools but by ordinary people who will make living selling their own personal data to these same organisations.

In fact, it’s already happening.

Nicholas Oliver, CEO and founder of pays people for watching ads. In fact, big data is being undermined by companies using their customers’ data for targeted advertising purposes.

Prof. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger at the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University and the author of Big Datatakes up this theme.

“The value of Big Data lies not only in the way we use data here and now but also in the potential, future use of the volumes of data collected. The driving force for this type of Big Data business is the idea that large amounts of data equals great potential. But all that could change in the future.”

In the future, data will work in much the same way that calendars work where each person will choose to invite certain people to share events and information with them. Ordinary citizens will have a higher degree of control than they do at present over what data they share with others and this is likely to become the ‘new norm’ in the wake of the GDPR. But changing the legal landscape won’t be enough.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee says that in order to achieve this new state, we’ll have to build powerful computer systems that can adapt to changing environments and allow the protection of privacy to be core to that development.

The business world is slowly waking up to the future Internet of Things (IoT) and the new paradigm in personal data.

For example, Microsoft believes that we have to think differently about data and that we should move away from the need of ‘big data’ that has so obsessed the marketing profession for years.

It was only a couple of years ago that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, remarked: “Our privacy is being attacked on multiple fronts. I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong.”

We’ve also rapidly reached the point where people often struggle to tell the difference between talking to a computer and a real human. And I’m not referring to Alexa and Siri in case you’re wondering.

The latest Hiscox Cyber Security AI radio ad for cyber insurance boasts that it was written and performed by a computer and challenges the listener to tell the difference.

2017 may go down in history as the ‘coming of age of the algorithm’ but fast forward to 2030 and non-biological computing looks set to overtake biological computing. Which sounds like a brave new world.

Provided we are still in control of our personal data!

For information about the GDPR Transition Programme at Henley Business School, click here.

Leave a reply