Whose data is it anyway?

Amidst the enthusiasm for innovation that has characterised Big Data Week Leeds, Dr Kevin Macnish struck an important note of caution: Big Data may bring benefits to organisations, and the financial payback may be enticing, but for individuals the implications of Big Data and predictive analytics pose considerable risks.

Legislation covering the ownership, transfer, sharing, storage and application of data, has failed to keep pace with technological development and commercial practice. We cannot assume that a legal framework protects our interests in the way that, for example, our housing ownership rights are protected.

In addition, our understanding of the definitions of personal data and ownership has been naïve, as Dr Macnish demonstrated with some pertinent analogies. The short-term benefits of allowing access to our personal data has led us to pay inadequate attention to longer-term consequences.

Granting access is done in a piecemeal fashion, on a daily basis, and over a period of years.

One delegate in his forties asked, if I wanted to find out how many organisations today own data about me, never mind what that data is or what permissions I have given in perpetuity, where would I even start? There is no monitor of monitors and, as Dr Macnish pointed out, it is difficult to address this problem in retrospect. There can be no general data amnesty. We cannot wipe the slate clean.

In what was an undoubted highlight of Big Data Week Leeds, casting new perspectives on all other presentations, two points stood out to me.

Firstly, that in granting access to our data, we cannot realistically be giving informed consent: the transactions we want to complete are reliant on acceptance of lengthy, detailed terms and conditions which we cannot negotiate; access to tools on which our social happiness in part depends, such as Facebook or other social media platforms, is also subject to our acceptance of pre-defined terms and conditions, the future implications of which may not be clear to us.

Given this fact, as organisations rapidly increase the use they make of their data, and as we become more aware of these applications, a revolt seems – to this cynic – almost inevitable. One delegate raised the idea that ‘data boycotts’ may force companies to change their practices in the future, as awareness of data ownership and data control issues increases. This surely, though, will be the case only if there is choice in the marketplace.

It will be interesting to see how younger generations, who have grown up entirely in an age in which data is transactioned, will assert their rights of control. Have they lost the older generation’s concern for privacy and its suspicion of non-democratic corporate entities? Or will they be more conscious of the value of their personal data, and find new ways to exploit this for their own benefit? One can imagine a new economy in which the individual participates in the negotiation for data control and reaps the benefits of data.

Secondly, it is the application of predictive analytics to our personal data that feels most uncomfortable. The idea that someone holds factual information on our past purchases or behaviour is something we have grown to accept as part of modern society, even if this is, as one delegate put it, a little like the frog dropped into cold water, which is heated so gradually he does not jump out before he is boiled.

However, when it comes to using data on our past actions to predict our future behaviour – the example Dr Macnish posed was using our Google searches to predict our voting behaviour – and treating us difficulty because of this, we are far less happy. This, however, is current practice, both in the NHS and in many commercial organisations, not some dystopian vision.

This discomfort comes in part from our unwillingness to admit that we are predictable. We retain an illusion of free choice and the notion that our future actions can be ‘seen’ in advance by software, challenges our very understanding of what it means to be human.

These are issues that will move from the fringe to the fore. Dr Macnish has already given evidence to a parliamentary select committee attempting to grapple with the legislation required to protect individuals and their data. By the time of Big Data Week 2017, we may not have answers or consensus on this topic, but the importance of discussion and conscious decision-making, both at the individual and the collective level, can only grow.

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