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Data privacy and the digital dilemma: Giving people control and choice

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / whiteMocca)

In the next decade, data privacy is set to become the singular defining issue that impacts how people choose to interact with government and big business. 

Consumer concerns are rising fast in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic that has turbocharged the digitalization of every aspect of society. And while legislation like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) represents a valiant first attempt to hold government bodies and private companies accountable for how they handle our personal data – many consumers are now taking issue with their growing lack of data privacy and control.

The rising slew of high-profile data breaches, including the much-publicized leak of 533 million Facebook users’ data earlier this year, isn’t the only thing that’s fuelling concerns. 

People are starting to question what’s really happening to all their Fitbit, GPS, YouTube, Alexa and other user data. Or why they really need to provide so much personally identifiable information – like their date of birth, personal email or mobile number – just to trial a new online service or download some information. And what happens to all that data in the months and years ahead.

While many of us are aware that ‘free apps’ come with strings attached – we hand over some of our data and get something in return – there’s little transparency into exactly what happens to that data or who it is shared and traded with after the fact. Or indeed, what happens to the data collected every time we make an online purchase.

This perhaps explains why, following the launch of Apple’s iOS upgrade earlier this 96 percent of iPhone users have taken advantage of a new feature that enables them to opt-out of tracking for any apps they use.

Data privacy: why it’s time to act 

The thorny issues surrounding ‘personal data’ won’t go away anytime soon. Currently, the onus of responsibility on how to use, protect and leverage our personal data lies with big companies and government institutions. This should serve as a wake-up call for everyone, because power now lies with those who control our data.

The unpleasant reality is that big tech firms like Facebook have already set a precedent when it comes to monetizing the personal data of its users and engaging in unethical data sharing arrangements that do not in any way benefit consumers. All of which highlights how the corporate-ownership model of personal data represents a growing and significant risk to individuals and civil society as a whole.

In the US, attempts are being made to leverage antitrust laws to address data privacy issues and prevent companies like Facebook from misusing our personal data. But the genie is already out of the bottle. The moment you click ‘accept’ on the Terms and Conditions form at the bottom of the sign-up page for a free app (without ever following the link to read the labyrinthine document that sets out the ‘pact’), your personal data and what happens to it is no longer within your control.

While that’s a disquieting thought for some, many people – including digital natives – appear complacent about or singularly unaware of the risks involved in handing over their personal and sensitive data so they can chat or share video clips with friends.

Triaging the issue

There is little doubt that consumer awareness of data privacy, data ownership and what data protection really means is growing – as is mistrust and cynicism where all things digital are concerned.

For companies and organizations that are committed to playing by the rules, the focus in recent years has been on staying compliant with GDPR. But there are plenty of businesses out there that are only too happy to play fast and loose when it comes to exploiting loopholes in the current legislation.

Right now, the UK government has is in a position to step up and become a global leader in this field. Enacting laws that truly safeguard our personal data and cannot be circumvented simply by relocating a website to another geography. Setting out clearly what organizations can and can’t do with our data and empowering everyone to determine what and how much they share – and how that data is used.

Democratizing personal data is just the first step. To deliver the full traceability and transparency needed to enable the true digital transformation of personal data, the UK government should look to technologies like blockchain to ensure that this stored data is ‘owned’ by each individual citizen. Everyone could then be issued with a national email address associated with their blockchain identity – in much the same way as a National Insurance number. This would enable a truly global ‘least privilege’ model that enables every UK citizen to decide exactly how much and what information they share with organizations and platforms anywhere in the world to ‘prove’ they are who they say they are.

Finally, the UK government will need to initiate education programs for everyone. Because to thrive and survive in our increasingly digital world means you will first need to understand how to protect your personal data from compromise.

Preparing for a more sustainable future 

Utilizing blockchain systems to protect privacy and put power back into the hands of users would overnight put an end to issues like online trolling, digital stalking, and spam. It could also help reduce the incidence of cybercrime.

One thing is for sure, in the coming years, consumers are going to make more considered decisions when determining which organizations and businesses they’ll choose to engage or transact with. In much the same way as green and eco-friendly practices are fast becoming a top criterion for today’s consumers, how you handle and manage their data will become a deal-breaker in the future. 

Today’s consumers want more choice over who learns what about them, how their data accumulates, and what and how that information is shared. With data now the new currency, organizations that initiate sustainable governance practices and transition to a more ethical and consumer-friendly data management approach will ultimately win the day.

Michael Queenan, CEO and co-founder, Nephos Technologies

Michael is a co-founder of Nephos and is responsible for the overall strategy, direction and branding at Nephos.