Data is so defining to the era we live in that it has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution – yet many are still not aware of its raw power, or the importance of data ethics to each of our lives in the here and now.
Data is not an equivalent to gold, oil, or a synonym for profit- but an individual’s virtual DNA, body and fingerprints. Data is humans, each of us, all of us, and the sum of our lives and activities – and as such is immensely valuable and powerful.
But currently it is used in a way that locks those who actually create it out of any benefit.
In a new book, Data Ethics – the New Competitive Advantage by Gry Hasselbalch and Pernille Tranberg, the authors compare the current awareness of the need for ethics in personal data to environmental concern, which two decades ago was only just coming to public prominence.
Many companies did not take being green seriously back then – and yet now recycling and so much more is commonplace, as we all acknowledged the impact of our behaviour on our planet, and changed it for the better, along with our notions of what was acceptable in society or business. That’s why sound business practices today are also green practices.
They issue a rallying cry for data ethics to become “a new compass to guide us” saying: “Across the globe, we’re seeing a data ethics paradigm shift take the shape of a social movement, a cultural shift and a technological and legal development that increasingly places humans at the centre.”
There are certainly signs that consumers are not just aware of their lack of control over their personal data, and ultimately privacy, but taking action to try and and reverse this, with the use of ad blockers and encryption services on the rise globally.
And businesses too, are becoming more aware of data from an ethical perspective, “moving from a huge focus on big data to embracing sustainable data use.”
Astonishingly, because of risks associated with holding and using personal data, Gartner has predicted that by 2018 50pc of business ethics violations will be caused by improper use of big data.
Among many fascinating ideas and opinions expressed in the book is the idea of a looming digital hangover, caused by growing awareness that our data has “a secret life in a big data society.”
This rings so true – our data has always been out there, being sold, being traded, used in (often vastly inaccurate) attempts to profile us so we can be targeted with ads, but only now is that becoming widely known by the population in general.
Data is the foundation of many business models, from the Googles and Facebooks of this world down, but always to the benefit of those companies, not the individuals whose data is being sold. The book calls this the “invisible price” we pay for using these services for free, noting that this is the web’s preferred payment method.
But things are changing. As another memorable line in the book states: “Most people would like to decide for themselves just who knows what exactly about them and when.”
We are moving towards an era where privacy-aware consumers and regulation are combining to make data not just centered around the individual, but something they have control over. It still has value and power, of course, but this will increasingly benefit the individual and no longer companies trading it.
It is clear that regulation, such as the incoming GDPR, will help drive momentum in this area, but the book makes it clear that individuals must also take responsibility over their own data.
Nowadays, privacy is becoming a differentiator – a deliberate policy setting companies apart from their peers.
At digi.me, for example, one of our core brand statements is that we never see, touch nor hold any user data ever. It’s not held centrally, each user gathers and holds it in a secure, personal library of their choice, we just give them the means to download and normalise their data from various sources.
And this sets us apart from other services, similar in some ways, which also collect user data together and offer choices over what you can do with it, but hold that data themselves, or in a shared cloud.
Also key to our personal data vision is what we call the Internet of Me – putting the user back at the centre of their connected world, in charge of their data and what is shared with whom.
This chimes well with several studies into sharing by Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti that have concluded, among other things, that the more privacy and the more control users think they have over their data, the more they dare to share about themselves.
Consented sharing, whether for personalised benefits or services or something else, also means better, 100pc accurate data is available for those wishing to innovate.
This, in turn, gives science and the business world the opportunity to devise and offer better products and services – which is better for all of us.
So greater personal data ethics are not only important for privacy, they will benefit society as a whole. Let’s just hope it catches on in the same way as going green did.