Is this the lot of the modern man? The tragic disclosure of their affair online, the violation of their person through identity theft. Their data taken, used, lost by corporations so faceless, so uncaring. Subject to the vagaries of outrageous privacy policies. Their right to be forgotten something devoutly to be wished for? Is our digital world just another stage for human anguish?
Perhaps. Yet that is not how most of us act; for most of us the prospect of harm from data sharing is abstract and somewhat disconnected from our experience. Surveys regularly indicate that around three quarters of us will share our data if there is some perceived benefit - and sharing data for free services has been one of the most successful business models of the internet; a business model that generates a lot of the content we enjoy, and arguably makes the internet function.
It would be terribly easy to respond to disasters by calling for public awareness about the dangers of sharing data, but there are three major reasons why that has little utility. Firstly, information security expertise does not protect you from foolishness on the part of others. Secondly, like it or not, choosing not to share will increasingly mean choosing not to participate in society. Finally, it misses the most vital point of all: sharing personal data is good.
What we need to have front of mind is that sharing our data is a necessary and desirable social and economic function, and that personal data is at its most socially useful and economically powerful when it is aggregated. Allowing BMW to tell you all about cars that might suit you when you're in the market for a new motor is good for you and them.
Helping John Lewis to better understand what you might like to buy in future is helping them to help you. Having the NHS collate and use very specific bits of data about you - even without your consent - may well save your life and the lives of your children, and cost you less in taxes. We need to make this work for our collective benefit.
Sadly, our current path is in the opposite direction; sharing personal data is not working for anyone particularly well, and it is in danger of getting a lot worse.
We are learning to lie and obfuscate as consumers, and businesses are using ever-more invasive techniques to learn about us, while having to spend more to deal with the messy data we give them. Corporations, governments and consumers are moving from a police action into a de facto state of war over data. As the 'internet of things' - an explosion of internet connected devices and sensors - becomes a reality and enters your home, the amount of personal data that's available will explode, so will the potential benefit, and so will the problems.
Personal data is set to drive the next consumer phase. Music streaming services already use profiles of you to suggest music you will enjoy, while organisations such as Apple also favour expert curation. Yet they are using only tiny snippets of data to do so compared with what exists about you. Imagine if Spotify could also tailor your music based on what clothes you wear, where you go, what you're eating.
It doesn’t end with musical taste either. Imagine if you could not only listen to what Zane Lowe thinks you'd enjoy, you could also choose to decorate your lounge as he does, but share back to him your own personal enhancements. For some it might horrify, for others it will be the final emancipation of their taste and creativity. For the entrepreneur, it’s a massive opportunity.
Personal data relationships are also at the heart of modern public services. Government thinking around data is significantly evolving, but it still tends to focus on government data, rather than citizen data that supports the public task (GCHQ notwithstanding!).
It may well be the case that the aggregation of movement and sleep data from your phone with your supermarket loyalty card is more relevant to your current health than anything the NHS has in your medical records. Perhaps the current drive for early detection of cancer will only really work if it can get to your data before you decide you need to see your GP.
So much benefit, so much opportunity, so many risks. At the moment it feels like we either choose not to participate in modern life, or submit ourselves to corporate whims and mistakes. We need some new choices.
The paradoxical leap we need to take is to put back individual data under individual control in a way that will actually facilitate sharing. This does not mistake the ability to tailor 500,000 privacy settings for ‘control’, or encourage the idea that people should always seek to minimise their data footprint. Instead it means creating the environment for a new industry of personal data management that will re-establish the positive social contract between consumers and businesses and end the war.
Just as the banks, credit card companies and credit agencies protect our finances and facilitate our transactions, we need personal data 'banks' that can hold our data on our behalf, serve us, protect us, get the best deal for our data. Crucially, they can safely share it with businesses and governments according to rules set by us and overseen by regulation.
From the NHS to Sainsbury’s, organisations would get richer and more useful data than they could otherwise dream of - so they can do a better job for all of us. As a side-effect, such an industry would be dramatically more effective to regulate than the current status quo. Health, social justice, prosperity, opportunity, economic growth, rule of law, all driven by getting this right.
This is an industry waiting for the right environment, and just as the UK’s law, culture and practice has given this small island a dominant position in global finance, the UK is uniquely placed to dominate this new industry if it gets its act together. There are smart entrepreneurial people in the UK right now working to make this happen. They need to be heard and understood by lawmakers and bricks-and-mortar businesses, and we need to take this opportunity while it is still fresh. Leaders, take note.
Prospect and BCS hosted a debate on giving people power over their personal data at the Labour Party conference in Brighton on Tuesday 29 September and at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester on Monday 5 October. Speakers included Prospect‘s Serena Kutchinsky, journalist Jon Bernstein, David Evans, Director of Policy & Community at BCS, Keith Vaz MP, Nicola Blackwood MP and Chi Onwurah MP.