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Sharing our data: watch out, watchers!

We have been too been willing to trade privacy for utility; the web is so damn useful

March 30, 2014 | By:

We increasingly need to trust companies before we'll share our personal data – so they need people in them who talk our language and understand our mindset, says the IoD's Martin Thomas

Online privacy_personal data-620 Corbis

Many of us would rather stay anonymous online than risk our personal data being misused. Photo from Corbis

“When the product is free, you are the product.” This neat soundbite encapsulates the commercial model that underpins most modern technology.

The simple reason why the exotic wonders of the World Wide Web are mostly available to us free of charge is that the data we (often inadvertently) provide to web operators and online retailers has a commercial value.

The sites we look at, the things we buy, the information we share about ourselves, is gold dust for the people who market products and services online. We are the product.

Your reaction to this state of affairs probably defines on which side of the digital divide you reside.

‘Digital natives’, a descriptor which covers most people under 30, currently seem comfortable with the idea of sacrificing privacy for utility. This is the generation which struggles to imagine a world before Google, an event that cannot be captured on a camera-phone and a social life before Facebook.

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In a recent survey, 28 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds described Google as their most trusted institution, compared to 17 per cent for the population as a whole. Their attitude seems to be: so long as the technology makes life easier and more rewarding, who cares about privacy? 

But there is a more sceptical, mature audience that tends not to share this somewhat blasé response. A generation that worries whether the corporations and governments accumulating our personal data will use it responsibly and ethically. And I mean us.

Maybe we have simply become more cynical with age, or else we’ve retained some residual distrust of the motives of the commercial organisations that increasingly dominate our lives. But as the high-profile Edward Snowden case has demonstrated, it’s not only dictatorships that like to keep a close watch over their people.

What do you intend to do with my details?

The experts may claim that online data is made anonymous, to ensure personal records cannot be accessed, but how many of us trust corporations to always do the right thing? How happy would we be, especially those of us in our forties and fifties, if we learnt that an insurance company was tracking our health-related search history to set our premiums?

How comfortable would we be if the Inland Revenue was allowed to use our personal financial transaction data to establish whether we are paying the correct amount of tax?

For any organisation aiming to market its products and services to a more mature audience, even in a world of seemingly limitless sharing, privacy issues do matter. ‘What do you intend to do with my personal details?’ and ‘Why do you need this information in the first place?’ are questions that simply cannot be ignored.

Our default position is one of automatic distrust, which history tells us is probably the most sensible place to start. (Prove to me that you won’t abuse my privacy, rather than offer me empty promises.)

And this is probably why generation high50, with its natural suspicion and more sober take on the wonders of new technology, is well placed to advise our corporations and public institutions on privacy issues.

Privacy back on the agenda

Once more people begin to realise that their personal data can be abused, the chances are that even the younger generation will be more circumspect about how much of their online behaviour they are willing to share.

‘How do I close down my Facebook account?’ is now rumoured to be one of the most popular search terms on Google, probably driven by a slew of new graduates hoping to enter the workplace without the baggage of a hedonistic youth lived through the Facebook Timeline.

The media’s apparent fixation with cyber-bullying and other technology-related evils might also lead to a world in which privacy starts to matter again. Such a shift will have profound implications for our corporations. 

One of the most interesting responses to the privacy debate in recent years was undertaken by Andy Bond, the former chief executive of Asda. In a speech to launch what he described as ‘democratic consumerism’, he said: “Faith in big businesses is lower than it’s ever been – because people have stopped trusting what’s going on behind closed doors. So, from today, there is no ‘behind the scenes’.”

He continued: “Our aim is to be a truly open, accessible and transparent business so that we can rebuild trust and drive customer loyalty. I firmly believe that customer loyalty cannot be bought with plastic points or discount vouchers. It has to be earned.”

This surely, is the reason why ‘telling the company’s inside story’ has become such a popular technique in social media. It makes a nod towards transparency. And it may also play into the hands of our ‘olderpreneurs’, who start with the advantage of knowing the mindset of their customers, and can at least ‘talk the same language’.

Hitherto, too many of us have been willing to trade our privacy for utility; the web is so damn useful. But as the hyperbole surrounding privacy issues intensifies, more of us might start to consider the implications of this Faustian pact. The web may not be the devil, but if you want people’s personal data, you’ll need to prove you’re on the angels’ side.