The Big Data Era: How Should Consumers Deal With the New Definition of Privacy?

March 26, 2014
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ImageOrganisations like Google, Facebook and Amazon are building extensive profiles of you about who you are, what you have bought/liked/read and your preferences. This is nothing new, but has been around for years already. In exchange for ‘free’ services such as Gmail or Facebook, these organisations use the profiles to generate revenue.

ImageOrganisations like Google, Facebook and Amazon are building extensive profiles of you about who you are, what you have bought/liked/read and your preferences. This is nothing new, but has been around for years already. In exchange for ‘free’ services such as Gmail or Facebook, these organisations use the profiles to generate revenue. Advertising follows you around the web, even if you are no longer interested in a product. Also the activities of the NSA, supposedly as part of the war against terrorism, collect massive amounts of data and consequently the NSA knows all about you. Whether you like it or not. In the 21st century, privacy has taken a new meaning and consumers will have to learn how to deal with this.

Researchers at MIT and the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium have shown what privacy means today. They were able to identify, with 95% accuracy, citizens with just using four points of reference from their cell phone. They analysed anonymous data from 1,5 million European cell phone users over a span of 15 months. They only required four location points from antennas to identify 95% of all users. In other words, four smartphone location measurements during the course of a year are sufficient to identify you, from absolute anonymous data.

So, times are changing and for consumers it is important to be aware of the changed situation. More and more organisations will start using their data in the coming years, and they should if they want to remain competitive. So consumers should get used to the new situation. Of course, this does not mean that organisations can completely forget about the privacy of their customers. On the contrary. Customers should not become the victim of the Big Data era and organisations should stick to the four ethical guidelines to protect their customers.

Organisations have to be transparent, so that consumers know what will be done with the data, today and in the future. They should keep their communication simple and understandable, so that also the digital immigrants understand what’s being done with the data. All data should be well secured, so that hackers do not stand a chance. Finally, privacy should be part of the DNA, so that all employees understand the importance of it. The development of a quality mark, to ensure that organisations adhere to these guidelines, could be imaginable / desirable.

That having said, it will help customers if they also know how to act in this new situation. Customers should know what data they share with which a company and not absentmindedly accept policy statements or terms & conditions that result to sharing a lot of personal data. They should be cautious with what they share, for example on social networks. Everything on social networks is public information and accessible by organisations. So sharing a picture of your credit card on Facebook is probably not a good idea.

Also downloading new apps on your smartphone could result in privacy breaches. Many of us simply download an App and without paying any attention, accept all requests to access a vast array of data on your smart phone ranging from location data to personal information. Dealing with this more consciously is a good starting point for consumers.

In addition, organisations that start developing a Big Data Proof of Concept, and involve their customers in the process, should be stimulated. As mentioned earlier, there was a lot of outrage in The Netherlands when ING Bank announced to use customer data to provide personalized advertising from 3rd parties on their own platform. Due to the outcry by consumers, associations and even the politics, ING decided to postpone the Proof of Concept. This is a pity because especially these pilots, which are performed with a small group of customers who explicitly approved the usage of their data, will provide a lot of insights in how organisations, customers and (local) governments will need to deal with the privacy aspect of Big Data. Together we have moved into this direction and together we will need to learn and understand how to deal with the new paradigm.

An extensive public debate in different countries would therefore help protect the privacy of consumers. But in order to do that, pilots such as initially planned by ING, are required. In a different pilot for example, the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard University managed to identify 40 per cent of individuals who had taken part (supposedly anonymously) in a large-scale DNA study, the Personal Genome Project. Thanks to such controlled test we now better understand the implications of so-called anonymous data, which could contribute in the privacy debate. Therefore, let’s stimulate Big Data Proof of Concepts and together understand how to deal with privacy in the Big Data era.