To personalise or not: WhatsApp re-ignites the data sharing debate

WhatsApp announced last month that it will allow its parent company Facebook to sell its user data to advertisers. The news was met with widespread consternation.

The timing too couldn’t be more unfortunate, coming just a fortnight after a landmark US Court of Appeal ruling in favour of Microsoft’s bid not to hand over its customer emails to the US federal government.

Also playing on many minds is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), adopted in April this year after four years of debate, and due to come into force by mid-2018. Corporations located in EU member states are already scrambling to ensure compliance with requirements that are variously described as “onerous”, “radical” or “doesn’t go far enough”.

As both the private and public sectors struggle to draw the line between data privacy and data utility, it is perhaps time for individuals to ask themselves the same questions. What do I stand to gain from government and corporate use of my data? And when does this cross the line?

This is not just a philosophical exercise. In fact, data privacy advocates strongly espouse the concept that an individual’s personal data belongs to the individual. Governments and corporations are deemed “temporary custodians” of the data they collect, and can choose to offer personalised services, but based only on the information that individuals are willing to share with them.

Billed as a first of its kind, the high profile MyData 2016 conference taking place in Helsinki this week promotes this view of “human-centric data management”. Organisers of the event take pains to stress that their intention is not to stifle innovation, but rather to lay the ground rules for the ethical use of data. However, implicit in the conference themes is the notion that the scales may now have tilted too far in favour of the organisation versus the individual.

Aside from the issues of data security (ie keeping data safe from hackers and unauthorised persons), research suggests that individuals greatly fear the improper use of big data to drive key decisions made about them. Media, internet, telecommunication and insurance companies are said to face the greatest “data trust deficit” and need to make the most effort to ensure that their brand is associated with data transparency and accountability.

On the other hand, individuals should not under-estimate the extent to which big data mining has become an expectation. Research by the Aberdeen Group suggest that 74 percent of online consumers actually get frustrated with website offers and promotions that have nothing to do with their interests. The research also found that more than half of all consumers are now more inclined to use a retailer if it offers a good personalised experience.

The key appears to be control. According to CMO.com, more than 60% of online users, while valuing personalisation, sought to understand how websites select such content. A similar number wanted the ability to influence the final results by proactively providing or editing personal information about themselves.

However, it is not marketing websites but IoTs and wearables that will be the biggest test of users’ embrace or disaffection with big data. Today’s low cost wearables are effectively subsidised by the potential monetisation of the data that these devices are able to generate. This data is vast and highly personal, and while the IoT trend is not new, experts expect wearable technology to escalate dramatically over the next few years.

It is therefore increasingly incumbent on the industry to put in place measures that protect the data from abuse. Manulife’s MOVE and AIA’s Vitality programmes are classic examples of how it is possible to align individual and corporate objectives to the benefit of both. Individual policy holders are provided with fitness trackers that record workout data, and rewarded for healthy behaviour through discounts or points. This is done by ensuring workout data is explicitly collected and consent explicitly provided, with a firm undertaking that the data will not be shared or used for other purposes.

It is said that with great power comes great responsibility. Big data has the power to transform organisations and disrupt industry practices. But in delivering the personalisation that individuals now demand, organisations cannot lose sight of their responsibility to maintain the individual’s innate desire for self-determination, even in the digital world.

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