Viewpoint: How to do more, not less, with personal data

Ardi Kolah, author of The GDPR Handbook, argues that while GDPR may have been a pain for both marketers and consumers, we are entering an exciting new phase where personal control of data opens up a wealth of opportunities.

The issue of personal data, privacy and security has taken on more significance and urgency in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal than we could have ever imagined or predicted. This follows a catalogue of personal data breaches on an industrial scale – just think back not that long ago to Equifax, BUPA, NHS, Yahoo and Wanna Cry (I bet you do). But should we all be living in fear of whether we are next in line to suffer sleepless nights? Not necessarily.

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 – and I would include myself in this category as a privacy professional – are optimistic about the future, rather than terrified by it.

If social media giants recognise that they need to embrace global standards of data protection, privacy and security that drive transparency and accountability all the way from top to bottom of their vast empires, they won’t have to endure the palpable sense of mistrust felt by 87m people around the world as a result of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

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. They need to continue to do so without fear of being unwitting victims of surveillance capitalism. 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 in the balance. But right now, they are.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee 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 when and how 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.

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 Oxford University and the author of Big Data, takes 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 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. We’ve also rapidly reached the point where people often struggle to tell the difference between talking to a computer and a real human. The latest Hiscox radio ad for cyber insurance boasts that it was written and performed by a computer and challenges the listener to tell the difference.

2018 may go down in history as the ‘coming of age of the algorithm’ and the General Data Protection Regulation but fast forward to 2030 and non-biological computing looks set to overtake biological computing. It all sounds like a brave new world – provided we are still in control of our personal data!

Ardi Kolah is the author of The GDPR Handbook, out 3 June from Kogan Page.