Do you feel you have a complete understanding of how your data is being collected, shared and sold online? If you’re unsure, you may not be alone, writes Caroline Normand…
How many members of the Cabinet, Whitehall mandarins or senior figures at regulators and FTSE 100 companies truly understand the extent of data being collected and bought and sold online? My wager is very few.
Of course, there are some people who understand all too well – most likely to be found flitting between the boardrooms, juice bars and ping-pong tables of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses.
Facebook, Google and other tech giants have been able to take advantage of this knowledge gap to rake in data – and profits – on an unprecedented scale. But at what cost?
Facebook’s CEO has been touring the globe to say sorry for sharing data of millions of users, which was then allegedly used to influence democratic elections.
Meanwhile Google is being sued in the high court for alleged “clandestine tracking and collation” of personal information from 4.4 million iPhone users in the UK.
Both cases raise serious questions about whether these companies can be trusted as responsible custodians of our data.
What we uncovered
Today we released a major new piece of research, giving a very detailed analysis of consumer attitudes and behaviour when it comes to data.
We found people had little understanding of how their data is used – and many were shocked when they learned the truth.
Two-thirds of people told us they are not comfortable with organisations using information they post publicly – such as Facebook photos.
A similar number were not happy with information garnered from methods like browsing history tracking being used, while eight in 10 people told us they are concerned about their data being sold on to third parties.
Do you consent?
Most of us understand that when we sign up to a social media website we will be sharing some data. But how can we really be deemed to be giving meaningful consent when we have no idea of the consequences – good or bad – of the agreement?
We generally have no idea who might use that data later to target us – perhaps to advertisers, political lobbyists or other third parties we would not approve of.
And away from social media, companies such as “data brokers” make money from selling individual profiles of almost all of us, which might feature information including income, home ownership and relationship status. This data might be spliced up with “inferred” information – sophisticated guesswork – to produce a more complete profile.
But when Deloitte asked more than 100 staff in the US to review the data held on them by a leading data broker, more than two-thirds found less than 50% of the information was accurate.
We are concerned about the possibility of such – possibly inaccurate – information affecting access to vital services like credit and insurance.
What we’re demanding
It is time to strike a new deal on data that restores the power balance between consumers and tech companies.
Thus far, transparency and responsibility have largely been optional for the companies that deal in our data and in that laissez-faire climate, ethics and profits have been balanced in an entirely predictable way.
We believe the Competition and Markets Authority should urgently carry out a market study of the digital advertising industry to ensure it has a firmer grip on the prevalence and impact of micro-targeting – and to check whether Facebook and Google’s substantial market power could raise prices for advertisers, which would lead to a risk of goods and services becoming more expensive as a result.
It is also time for a thorough review by the new Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation at DCMS (TBC) of how our data is collected, shared and sold in cyberspace – which should focus on finding a way to promote innovation while also improving oversight and enforcement.
These first steps should help restore consumer trust, which has been so severely dented by recent scandals – and set us on a path to securing a deal on data that works for all of us.
Are you concerned about your online data ‘profile’? Do you take steps to protect yourself online, such as changing your privacy settings or avoiding services that collect a lot of data?