Despite high profile, Edward Snowden-type media stories, most people are completely unaware of just how much data is freely available about them online. Even if someone takes the time to complete privacy settings on social media and is deliberately cautious about over-sharing, there is still a phenomenal amount of information being collected, stored and analyzed.
Most people, for example, are almost entirely oblivious to the fact that the GPS sensor in their smart phone makes it possible to identify within a few meters where a picture was taken, regardless of whether the person sharing the photo adds a tag, message, or caption. Many people don’t realize that their web browser is monitoring their every move or even that people can easily hack into the camera on their laptop and watch them. And they certainly don’t comprehend how open and freely available their social media sites are or how much of what they post is saved and analyzed (even on services such as Snapchat that remove images from recipients’ devices after a few seconds). Although not just Facebook, if we all stopped using Facebook today (which is very unlikely), the company still would have more information about private individuals than any company on the planet!
The capabilities of face-recognition software alone are more than a little frightening, and while that software can help to prevent crime and thwart terrorist activities, it also can be used to spy on ordinary people for commercial purposes. And therein lies the big thorny issue: Most people have absolutely no idea what is going on with their data, be it in darkened rooms in places that don’t officially exist or in the offices of giant corporations that have access to masses of data and futuristic technology.
Even if companies or applications disclose in their terms and conditions what data is being compiled about users, most people either don’t read them or don’t understand the implications of what they are agreeing to. For example, did you realize that if you use Gmail, Google’s free email service, that Google believes that you can’t legitimately expect privacy? Basically, Google believes it is okay to read and analyze the content of any and all of your private emails, whether they are sent from or received by a Gmail user.
The whole idea of data protection and giving people back the power over their data is a really important point. For companies, the best way forward is not only to be really transparent about how the data is being used, but also to add value to the user in exchange for their data.
If a company is giving something useful back to me as a user, then I don’t mind its aggregating some of my data if it also helps the company. For example, I have a Smart TV from Samsung that allows me to program the TV and, using the in-built camera, it detects the faces of my children and limits what they can watch. I don’t mind Samsung’s knowing what I watch on my Smart TV because the company is helping my wife and me to protect our children from stuff they shouldn’t see.
In the same way, I don’t mind Jawbone, the manufacturer of my “Up” band, analyzing my sleeping patterns because the system helps me monitor my health and well-being in real time. I also use the data from my band to recover faster between time zones, which actually is really helpful when I travel for business.
Although I don’t mind that these companies are collecting data on me, I do want to know the truth about what they are doing with that data. If the data is aggregated with data collected from other people and not necessarily connected to me as an individual, I am fine with that because it can help us understand more. For example, the data that Jawbone has collected on sleep alone is making huge in-roads into our collective understanding of sleep, insomnia, and how sleep is impacted by various factors. And this has the potential to help a lot of people.
For businesses, the key to success is to be open, honest, and transparent about how they want to use the data they collect. They must operate ethically and offer genuine value to their customers in exchange for customers’ providing the data. If companies provide value, most people will be happy, especially if the data is anonymized – that is, stripped of any personal markers that link an individual to the information.
If companies can demonstrate that they are using data ethically, people will respond. Plus, this aggregate use of data should improve products and make them less expensive, which will make customers even happier.
Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, strategic performance consultant, and analytics, KPI, and big data guru. He helps companies to better manage, measure, report, and analyze performance. His leading-edge work with major companies, organizations, and governments across the globe makes him an acclaimed and award-winning keynote speaker, researcher, consultant, and teacher.
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