A new culture of data sharing

At the moment it feels like we either choose not to participate in modern life, or submit ourselves to corporate whims and mistakes, says David Evans, Director of Policy & Community at BCS.

Is this the lot of the modern man? The tragic disclosure of their affair online, the violation of their person through identity theft. Their data taken, used, lost by corporations so faceless, so uncaring. Subject to the vagaries of outrageous privacy policies. Their right to be forgotten something devoutly to be wished for? Is our digital world just another stage for human anguish?

Perhaps. Yet that is not how most of us act; for most of us the prospect of harm from data sharing is abstract and somewhat disconnected from our experience. Surveys regularly indicate that around three quarters of us will share our data if there is some perceived benefit – and sharing data for free services has been one of the most successful business models of the internet; a business model that generates a lot of the content we enjoy, and arguably makes the internet function.

It would be terribly easy to respond to disasters by calling for public awareness about the dangers of sharing data, but there are three major reasons why that has little utility. Firstly, information security expertise does not protect you from foolishness on the part of others. Secondly, like it or not, choosing not to share will increasingly mean choosing not to participate in society. Finally, it misses the most vital point of all: sharing personal data is good.

What we need to have front of mind is that sharing our data is a necessary and desirable social and economic function, and that personal data is at its most socially useful and economically powerful when it is aggregated. Allowing BMW to tell you all about cars that might suit you when you’re in the market for a new motor is good for you and them.

Helping John Lewis to better understand what you might like to buy in future is helping them to help you. Having the NHS collate and use very specific bits of data about you – even without your consent – may well save your life and the lives of your children, and cost you less in taxes. We need to make this work for our collective benefit.

Sadly, our current path is in the opposite direction; sharing personal data is not working for anyone particularly well, and it is in danger of getting a lot worse.

We are learning to lie and obfuscate as consumers, and businesses are using ever-more invasive techniques to learn about us, while having to spend more to deal with the messy data we give them. Corporations, governments and consumers are moving from a police action into a de facto state of war over data. As the ‘internet of things’ – an explosion of internet connected devices and sensors – becomes a reality and enters your home, the amount of personal data that’s available will explode, so will the potential benefit, and so will the problems.