Let’s get real about privacy — whose data is it anyway?

Companies are collecting ever more data for commercial use. And some of it is yours. That’s right, they’re capturing, buying, storing, monitoring, analysing and monetising your data.

The applications are already endless — a billion apps, the smart tv in your lounge, cameras in the mall, sensors in stores, your browser, your mobile device and many other widgets at work, in the field and elsewhere.

Here are three very divergent examples to show how widespread it has become:

  • When you search a topic on Facebook, it’s no secret that you’ll see related ads in your browser. Facebook has recently begun to on-sell data related to your browsing habits, in an effort to monetise your eyeballs. You can opt out of course. Just figure out how.
  • Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers in the world, collects data about hundreds of millions of consumer activities, in the real world and online. The data is aggregated and sold.
  • Tracking Web-enabled medical implants, doctors can identify risk factors and provide treatment before a health issue gets out of control.

But does a medical device company have the right to sell data about your heart to pharmaceutical companies, so they can sell you heart medication?

Much has been written on the topic of these latter-day “invasions of privacy”, and it’s convenient to take an absolute view for or against it. A staunch privacy advocate might say something like this:

Even with informed consent, some of the rumoured uses would be enough of a legal grey area, but it’s not even clear anymore when the harvesting happens, where the data goes, how it will be used or by whom. Meanwhile, there’s a stand-off about whose data it is, and whose responsibility it is to safeguard the consumer’s privacy. Are we serious? Whose data is it anyway?

A service provider, software vendor, search provider, device maker or data broker, on the other hand, may say something like this:

Consumers are not helpless — they have a lot of control over whether to accept an offer based on the profile we’ve built up about them, and they can ask to be removed from any database. They have a choice not to use the technology they complain about and there are many things they can do to safeguard their actions.

At this point in the argument, most people’s brains shut off. Consumers want to use technology freely without being watched — ever — and service providers, sensing the upper hand, are basically saying ‘take it or leave it’.

Where does the market stand?

Some 80% of survey respondents report discomfort about their data being collected. An overwhelming percentage believes consumers should own their data.

Now you’re thinking, why ‘should’? Why is there even a debate about whose data it is? It’s the consumer’s, right?

The fact is that by consenting to use an app, BMW i8, Samsung Smart TV etc. we effectively agree that the data may be used in certain ways. Knowingly or not, we make our data available. How many of us hit the ‘agree’ button on the terms and conditions, whether we read it or not?

And to be honest, we have known for a long time that our data is being collected. We’d like to ignore it, of course, because the alternative is unthinkable — don’t use the technology. But we can’t really ignore it in a real debate, so a degree of grudging consent seems to be our lot.

But is it such an encroachment on our rights? If we’re reasonable, we will see it for what it is — an exchange of value. We sign over permission to use our data in order to get better-value offerings marketed to us. If a company collects data about us (or buys it from a data broker) the data can be used (even at an aggregated level, with analytics) to build a richer profile about us, which is then used to design a better user experience.

Another way to fully appreciate the value we’re getting as informed, consensual netizens is that the Internet as we know it exists at the scale and richness that it does because of advertising. Despite the extreme cost that went into making it, it is free to use. Every time you search you’re leveraging infrastructure costing trillions of dollars and insights and information belonging to millions of other people. If we’re being exploited, then it is only fair to say we’re also exploiting other people’s investments.

Some consumers get this. About two thirds say they will share personal data with SPs in exchange for more services or discounts. And they’re not being frivolous. Only 28% will do it if they know the SP plans to share it with a third party.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin: If the consumer must grow up a little, the service provider must play fair. One survey finds that only 45% of consumers have confidence in the security of their personal data. Some 91% of users worry about their data being used in ways they were unaware of, 88% fear identity theft, and 81% are concerned their location will be revealed without their knowledge.

The hard truth is that consumers, businesses and governments all have a role in upholding digital trust.

Consumers must make informed, context-dependent decisions about sharing their data or not. It goes beyond basic anti-virus and spam filters to being wise to concerns about social media ID theft, location tracking, m-commerce, and personal and behavioural data tracking.

Businesses must build and maintain trust to succeed with new products and services. Data is at the core of many communications, media and technology companies’ offerings, so they’re at the forefront of ensuring digital trust through security, privacy, value and accountability.

Governments must stimulate innovation and growth while protecting individuals from harmful uses of personal data. Meanwhile, they are also in the precarious position of reserving the right to access citizen data for their own benefits, while continuing to respect the privacy of individuals.

The future of privacy is in all our hands.