How much data do people actually give away?


James Petter, Vice President and Country Manager for the UK and Ireland, EMC shares his thoughts on digital privacy. JP at Techmanifesto - square

2014 is stacking up to be a seminal year in online privacy. Fuelled by the debate in to government and business access to citizen information, the Information Commissioner’s Office recently revealed a 7.1 percent increase in the number of data complaints made between 2013 and 2014. It has also been the year that Edward Snowden urged people to upgrade their security measures in order to protect confidentiality; and earlier this year, the introduction of the “right to be forgotten” ruling stated that Google must delete inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant data from its search results when a member of the public requests it.

I recently submitted evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee as part of its inquiry into social media data and real time analytics. As part of this, I discussed the topic of privacy and how I believe the debate has evolved. We recently commissioned some research to better understand consumer perception around privacy and the importance of protecting individuals against the benefits of convenient online commerce and social media. The study found that there was a global divergence of views around transparency, fairness, safe online behaviour and trustworthy use of personal data. In the UK specifically, 59 percent of respondents felt that they have less privacy now, compared to a year ago, whilst 52 percent reported that they have experienced a data breach.

The study suggests that people want the convenience and benefits of this fast moving technological world we live in, but without sacrificing privacy. Three distinct, yet intertwined privacy paradoxes emerged, each with powerful implications for consumers, businesses and technology providers as they consider the issue of digital privacy.

Paradox One: “We want it all”

Although people are using digital technology more frequently and place considerable value on the benefits offered, few say they are willing to trade their privacy for these benefits. Consumers in the UK were among the least willing (12th out of 15 countries) to sacrifice privacy for the benefits and convenience offered by technology, while people in India and China were much more inclined to share information in exchange for useful technology and services.

Paradox Two: “Take no Action”

While more than half of consumers have experienced a data breach where their privacy was potentially compromised, they are not taking basic measures to protect their information, such as changing passwords regularly and using password protection on mobile devices. Most believe it is the responsibility of the government, not the individual, to protect consumers’ privacy through the creation of laws and regulations. Further to this, there is a widespread lack of confidence in the organisations charged with protecting privacy, whether they are businesses or governments. With this pervasive mistrust in the organisations that are handling consumer data, there is a need for these institutions to take steps to improve internal processes and public perception around what they’re doing to protect privacy.

Paradox Three: “Social Sharing”

It is not new news that social media has exploded in popularity over the last few years and an overwhelming majority of consumers are actively sharing information via social media channels. More than 400 million Tweets were shared daily in 2012 and more than one billion share personal information on Facebook. 84 percent of consumers claim they don’t like anyone knowing anything about them or their habits, unless they make a decision themselves to share that information.

For consumers, the realisation that everyone is vulnerable hopefully reinforces the importance of increasing their awareness of privacy issues and to take personal action to protect their own privacy. For businesses, the imperative is to understand how varied customer perception is. Consumers are likely to engage in more online activities with institutions that demonstrate greater privacy protections – something that businesses and governments must not ignore. However, consumers need to also understand that using citizen data isn’t immediately insidious. The Office for National Statistics makes use of hundreds of data sets to guide and inform government decision making, and is planning to expand this in the future. Big data automates, creates efficiencies and offers huge potential to deliver significant economic and social benefits, such as higher growth, the next generation of public services, and billions in government efficiency savings.

All members of society – technologists, government, and citizens – can, and should, be more bullish about making this positive case for big data and analytics. All of us should do everything possible to increase levels of awareness and understanding in order to realise these benefits while continuing to protect individual rights and privacy. The rise in cloud computing and the use of big data to address society’s most urgent challenges will be accelerated with the protection of information assets and trust in the cloud. The winners and losers will be determined by those that demonstrate the most relevant and practical privacy practices to ensure the safety of data. It’s great to see that this issue is being considered by government, but it’s down to all of us to protect our privacy.

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