Tech x Society: Data-Sharing and Pay-for-Privacy

In recent years, the emergence of social networks, cloud computing, and countless web-based apps have created a wealth of concerns about data sharing and privacy. The greatest of these concerns center on what personal information can be shared and with whom. Not surprisingly, this has opened the floodgates of debate over whether individual companies or governmental entities should be responsible for protecting consumers’ privacy.

In the European Union, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a sweeping set of data privacy laws, went into effect in May 2018. Numerous countries, including Italy, Brazil and Chile followed suit, passing data protection bills and instituting fines for violating them. The United States has been slower to act, however.

Several bills have been proposed in the Senate, seeking to regulate how companies collect, use and protect Americans’ data. One bill, in particular, the Consumer Data Protection Act, proposed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, would allow companies that require user consent for their services to charge users a fee if they choose to opt out of online tracking. Advertisers, consumers, and publishers are assessing the value and implications of ad-free subscription options to offset privacy concerns.

BCG Digital Ventures chose this controversial, yet important, subject for the first installment of our Tech X Society series. Johanna Blakely, Managing Director of the USA Annenberg Norma Lear Center, was joined by Social Media and Privacy Policy Expert Claire Kim; Tech Columnist Ramona Pringle; and Executive President and Founder of Digi.me Julian Ranger for an insightful panel discussion moderated by Anthony Koithra, Managing Director and Partner at BCG Digital Ventures and founder of bluewhitered.org.

These experts from the worlds of tech, social media, and journalism came together to share their perspectives on these complex and ever-evolving questions around privacy and data. What are the societal and business implications of a Pay-for-Privacy model? What role should government play in ensuring the protection of data privacy? A number of key themes emerged from their discussion:

Data privacy is a matter of control. Individuals are not in control of much of their data that’s collected and what ultimately happens with it. Most don’t give it a second thought until the headlines are flooded with stories of data breaches and the personal information of thousands or millions of people at risk. Granted, data breaches and data sharing are two separate things, but such stories get people thinking about their own data that’s floating around out there somewhere. This may lead them to demand control over every single piece of data, but the task of selecting whether each piece of information they share to a platform can be sold to a third-party is a tiring and difficult process.

Social media and digital platforms are not optional. A seemingly simple solution would be to just avoid using digital platforms if you have privacy concerns. In our modern society, however, that is not possible. To conduct business, to succeed in a career, or to simply tend to daily matters, people must interact on these platforms. Even Facebook (or Meta), typically considered solely for entertainment purposes, has become so ubiquitous that job candidates without a social media presence are viewed as suspect. There’s an expectation of participation that makes it virtually impossible to avoid such platforms altogether.

Not all data-sharing is merely about making money. If we desire personalized medicine, we are going to have to be willing to share our health data, as well as our social data because that can be an indicator of our mental health. We’re not talking about making everyone’s personal health information available to the general public. Sharing such data with medical providers and health apps allows health professionals to provide targeted, personalized advice on managing chronic diseases, conquering smoking, or losing weight. Additionally, data can support social science research and aid in our exploration of how attitudes and behaviors are influenced by various types of reporting and media.

Pay-for-Privacy disproportionately impacts low-income communities. The societal implications of a pay-for-privacy model are enormous. When people are required to pay to opt-out of having their data sold to a third-party, vulnerable populations are likely to be negatively impacted. Privacy becomes the domain of the privileged as marginalized communities often won’t have the financial means to exert control over how their personal data is distributed. This power scenario highlights the disparity in access to privacy.

Governmental bodies must do more. With technology rapidly evolving, we’ve passed the tipping point. The spectrum of data-sharing is enormous, making regulation an absolute necessity. In the U.S., the question is who should be responsible for regulating data privacy. The Federal Trade Commission? Legislators? The judicial branch? The National Economic Council? Each of these entities plays a role, but confusion abounds over where the responsibility lies.

One thing that’s certain is there aren’t the right incentives in place for big tech companies to enact policies to protect consumer privacy. That’s where government can play a role by making the decision for them and pushing them in the right direction.

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