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How Much Control Will We Have over Our Personal Data?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The flood of online data about each of us seems to be increasing exponentially. For the most part we’re willing participants, lured by the promise of convenience and information. But how much control will we have over the data that we give up? Michael Fertik, CEO of Reputation.com, which is in the business of giving consumers control over their personal data, wrote to us from the World Economic Forum meeting this week in Davos, where the topic has gotten a hearing. (Fertik also wrote the Forum column in our February 2013 issue, A Tale of Two Internets.) Here’s his letter:

A year ago, multinational corporations had begun to entertain some radical (for them) concepts with regards to big data. For instance, executives seemed to consider the notion that consumer data they collected – from telecommunications data to healthcare records to their commercial and financial transactions to the digital footprints that customers leave as they use the Internet – need not be regulated and regimented, with benefits that tilted largely to business, but that the possibility of some kind of pro-consumer paradigm shift should be allowed.

Reading between the lines of conversations I’ve been having so far at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos about data governance, usage and privacy, people seem to be sharing a common vision.

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much common ground. On the one hand, users want control over their data – when it’s shared, how it’s shared, for how long it’s shared—and they are concerned about privacy, even as they rush to use social media platforms (see this Pew study).  Companies, on the other hand, want to further mine the intel they gather – from Internet browsing habits, shopping patterns, demographic data – to sell goods and services, make money, expand their businesses faster and more effectively.

For the first time at Davos this year, the key session on Unlocking the Value of Personal Data was moved from an “offsite” hotel meeting to a front-and-center leading working session inside the Congress Center.  In the Davos world, that move signals an arrival of the topic as a kind of “primetime” event at the World Economic Forum.  In the words of one of the key discussion leaders, last year’s meeting on this topic was one of the best and most important sessions he’s ever attended in years of involvement at the WEF.  As another discussion leader said this week, nearly every session that is happening at Davos this year in some implicates questions of personal data, big data, and privacy.  It’s been coming up hourly.  And at this key session on Unlocking the Value of Personal Data, all of the heavyweights were in the room and leaning in for a robust discussion: Global 2000 technology, health, and financial companies; key regulators; and the principal Internet thought leaders from around the world.

And for the first time ever, the discussion was largely unanimous in its embrace of the proposition that users CAN and SHOULD have some measurable control over either collection or use of their data.

We just saw the world move.  Huge companies – and in particular, the large number of massive global companies that are not hide-bound by their attachment to traditional Internet advertising business lines – see clearly the vast revenue opportunities in the data stores they have been accumulating for decades about people, places, and things.  And now – for reasons of both regulation and principle – they are highly motivated to start monetizing those data sets in ways that are clearly user-centric and pro-user.

There’s a tremendous amount of valuable data that companies can’t presently access or deploy for corporate or user gain – untapped gold, a resource of tremendous revenue generation.  With the right model—a ‘good guy’ paradigm that is user-centric—progressive companies could open the door to a huge new source of wealth creation.  With a Field of Dreams-like focus on incentives (“if you offer them, they will come”), consumers will embrace the shift to owning and benefiting from their data.

The point is not to forestall innovation or accidentally prevent serendipitous discovery arising from the connection of multiple and apparently disjointed data sets.  The goal is instead to enable the connection of those data sets with knowing and actually informed participation by users.

That’s why I’m a passionate advocate for the concept of the data vault – because it perfectly benefits companies and individuals alike.  Customers entrust their data to the vault system and decide what companies or types of businesses they trust.  Those companies then provide incentives, which a person could choose to take or not, in exchange for their data.  The value of the incentive – whether it’s a coupon, a free item, or even cash – would vary according to how valuable a company thought that data might be.  Imagine how much richer data would be if a person discloses it voluntarily – what better decisions, better products, even entirely new innovations could result with that information.  It’s a game-changer – and that’s exciting.

Right now, the most mature Internet companies are those that are focused on traditional ways of advertising – like Facebook or Google.  But sooner or later, the gold rush will be on as the pendulum swings back toward the consumer.

Fred Guterl About the Author: Fred Guterl is the executive editor of Scientific American and author of Fate of the Species (Bloomsbury). Follow on Twitter @fredguterl.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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