Rethinking Personal Data

It is no surprise that data privacy and security will once again be discussed at DLD14 and at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos.

The question, “how safe is your data,” is not limited to what the U.S.’s National Security Agency or other governments do with it. With more than six billion people connected to mobile devices that can capture and track location patterns, and advanced computing technologies like Watson (see the story on pages one and 23), private corporations can increasingly link all sorts of contextual data to individuals.

Until recently most people didn’t have a clue about who is looking at their data and what is being done with it. The danger is that news headlines about the NSA and alleged abuses by companies such as WhatsApp and Path will create a backlash.

In a 2013 survey of Internet populations across 11 countries 68% of respondents said they would select a “do-not-track” feature if it was easily available, according to consultancy Ovum’s report, “Personal Data Future: The Disrupted Ecosystems.”

This hardening of consumer attitudes, coupled with tightening regulation, could diminish the supply of personal data, undermining not just the Internet economy but big data analytics that can be used for good.

Esther Dyson, a scheduled speaker at DLD14, believes identity managers such as Personal Inc. can help to restore confidence. Such companies enable people to control their own data by managing their preferences. If consumers do manage to take control of their data, becoming more powerful both politically and socially, Dyson foresees a time ten years from now when a Publicis or a WPP might decide to represent consumers rather than advertisers.

No matter which way the pendulum swings, nearly everyone agrees on the need for accountability. The World Economic Forum will organize two sessions in Davos this year that will gather representatives from the public and private sectors to explore the global rules and tools needed to move forward. The forum’s Rethinking Personal Data initiative brings together data experts with business executives and policy makers to devise a global approach to the issue.

“In general we are focusing on strengthening accountability and what that means in a world where data is used in multiple contexts,” says William Hoffman, head of data-driven development at the World Economic Forum.   “We need new tools for permissions and provenance to more effectively flow with the data to remove uncertainty and lower risk.”