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The real value of personal data

02 : 05 : 2017 Privacy : Trust : Big Data

It is critical that we find ways to incentivise people to start taking control of data they create.

Nicholas Oliver, founder, people.io

In 1911, privacy was defined as ‘being withdrawn from society or public interest; avoidance of publicity’, suggesting that privacy was all-encompassing and could affect every aspect of your existence in society. Yet today, the definition has narrowed to ‘a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people’, which suggests that an individual could never possess such an all-encompassing form of privacy. Why the change though?

You guessed it, data. In 1911 only a few important personal records were kept, usually at key stages in your life, such as birth or marriage. In 2017, however, there is a record of every movement and action you have taken throughout your life, and sometimes before you were even born. This change brings with it a shift in the definition of privacy to better fit the evolution of technology and society as we know it today.

Our progression from the collection and use of persistent data, such as your address or date of birth, towards dynamic data, such as the websites you visit, your current location or even your heart rate, has put your entire life on the record. Thankfully, though, while the creation of dynamic data is ubiquitous, its collection and use is mostly fragmented and decentralised, affording each person a limited state of privacy within each context of the data’s use – as the combined dataset is not revealed in its entirety to any one entity. But are these context-specific states of privacy coming to an end?

Companies are in a race to capture data across their online and offline channels to create powerful unified profiles. This involves combining gigabytes of persistent and dynamic data relating to an individual to form one cohesive profile that would give them an edge over competitors by knowing exactly when and where to engage with that person.

Consumers aren’t blind to this and so it is no surprise that the Edelman Trust Barometer, which analyses a general population’s trust in the institutions of business, government, NGOs and media, reveals that in 2017 trust is in crisis around the world. More recently, a Eurobarometer showed that 89% of respondents believe the default settings of their browser should stop their information from being shared, and furthermore, almost two thirds (64%) of respondents say it is unacceptable for their online activities to be monitored in exchange for unrestricted access to a certain website.

Are consumers finally prepared to resist the unfettered collection of their data in return for access to a website, product or service? Perhaps, but as long as the value of a person’s data is limited to its use in today’s technology model, where that data must be aggregated and anonymised to protect the consumer’s privacy, a person will never realise the true value of a fully unified digital identity that he or she owns and controls.

By anonymising a person's data, a company is effectively decoupling it from the individual responsible for creating it, which means for good or for bad that the author won’t receive a share of the value created by its use.

In December 2016, Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warned that up to 15m jobs in Britain could be replaced through automation and artificial intelligence (AI). But given that AI requires vast amounts of data to train itself, where does that data come from? People, of course. But will any of them share in the long-term value of that data? Unlikely.

Similarly, in a 2016 talk at MIT, Tesla Autopilot programme director Sterling Anderson stated that in the previous 18 months, the company had collected 780m miles of driving data. ‘We can use all of that data on our servers to look for how people are using our cars and how we can improve things,’ said Anderson. Using a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation, that works out at £1.83 ($2.37, €2.16) of market capital increase for each of the 780m miles driven by a person during the period.

Whether or not people realise the long-term value of their data now, it is critical that we find ways to incentivise people to start taking control of data they create in ways that enable them to remain attributable to its long-term value.

Nicholas Oliver is the founder of people.io, a European start-up that is giving people ownership of their data to create a firewall for people. Recognised as the 2016 Nasdaq Rising Star and listed as one of Marketing Week’s 100 Disruptive Brands, it came out of beta phase in early 2017 and has since announced a major partnership with O2 Germany.