Data Privacy

Why the Daily Mail is completely wrong on personalised data

The tone of the headline sets the scene for the rest of the determinedly single focus article – evil holiday firms are “tracking your computer, scouring your old bookings..and even checking the births marriages and deaths!”

And for what purpose is this “spying” being done? So they can hike the price of your holiday, apparently, through personalised pricing based on knowing when, where and how you like to travel.

Now, businesses exist to make money, and will leverage opportunities they see – it’s naive to think otherwise. But holiday prices in this country are already hiked hugely during school and public holidays, for example, because data shows that more people travel then and supply and demands means they are forced to accept higher prices. So for the Mail to froth at the mouth about this seems a little horse and stable door.

In fact what the story is actually about is travel firms attempting to find out more about travellers through existing data to build a picture of what they might do in the future. So identifying who’s a last-minute panic holiday shopper, for eg, or who frequently books flights at rush hour times between major cities.

And, yes, the ultimate purpose behind these is likely to be personalised offers and advertising – not necessarily based on pricing. In fact, many of the firms in the article say that’s not the case (although they would, wouldn’t they?) – but it is certainly the reality that with multiple airlines or holiday companies offering similar products, over-priced holidays or flights are likely to be turned down, and potential customers lost.

The Mail, though, sees this as another example of Big Brother in our lives, and it comes hot on the heels of an article a few weeks ago that was similarly dismissive and scare-mongering about banks building up pyschological profiles of customers to offer targeted services.

But is it really so bad? I would argue not. The problem is less with the gathering of the data – personalised service, after all, is the Holy Grail of most businesses across all industries, because the more they know about us the more likely we are to buy.

No, personalisation can be good – when done well, when done with consent.

And this is the real problem, the one that the Mail doesn’t touch on at all because it’s too busy being outraged by the end product and not the process.

As Ctrl-Shift summarised in an excellent blog about the banking article: “The sad fact is that today’s standard model of customer data collection and use is almost perfectly designed to trigger these creepy feelings.

“This model is based on organisations collecting data about you, going through some process which you don’t understand behind your back, to do things to you. It can’t help but create a sense among customers that they are being watched and intruded upon, where they can’t trust the other party’s motives.”

As well as the underhand and non-permissioned way of collecting data like this, the end product is far from satisfactory – thin, not detailed and often 30-50 per cent incorrect.

So, really, it’s not working at all for users – who dislike the creepy, sneaky nature of web tracking, so are using ad blocking technology in their hundreds of millions – nor businesses, which need accurate data to fully understand and thus serve their customers.

The current data exchange model is broken, but a new one is emerging – a trust-based sharing economy with users in control of their own personal data and able to share it on their terms, for their benefit, only with those companies they want to deal with.

A tipping point will come, and soon, where this is the only future for personal data. And will be at the forefront with our Permissioned Access model, which will let users do just that, initially with their health and financial information.

But until then, the Mail is wrong. Personalised data is not the problem – it has the ability to enrich, deepen  and simplify each of our lives and experiences. The problem is how that data is acquired – but the storms of change are brewing, and we should all be ready to embrace them when they come.