“Trust dies but mistrust blossoms”: big data, personal data and “information sovereignty”

Demos published a report on “The Data Dialogue” in September 2012 with

the results of the largest ever poll of public attitudes on personal information and data- sharing. Based on a representative sample of 5,000 adults, the report finds a growing crisis in consumer confidence over how government and business handle personal data, and discomfort about the way in which personal information and data are currently being used.

The report argues that this loss of confidence could have a knock-on effect on the economy and on the quality of services available to consumers. However, it also finds that views about sharing change when people are given more control and choice about what data is shared, and when the benefit of sharing that data is made clear to them. It therefore suggests that consumers should be engaged in an honest dialogue about how data are collected and used, and be given meaningful choice and control over the information they share. That will be good for business and consumers alike.

The report reveals a crisis of confidence in information sharing and a wide diversity of views held by the public.  It posits that “data and information sovereignty is the next big consumer issue.”  Interestingly, some of the personal responses to the Ruskin archive scandal in the last few weeks seem to bear this out.

The Populus survey suggests that people share an increasing amount of information about themselves – and expect to share even more in the future. However, there is a crisis of confidence: the public is uncomfortable about the way personal information and behavioural data are collected by government and commercial companies. There is a danger that this loss of confidence will lead to people sharing less information and data, which would have detrimental results for individuals, companies and the economy.

The report suggests that the solution is to ensure individuals have more control over what, when and how they share information. Privacy is not easily defined

it is a negotiated concept that changes with technology and culture. It needs continually updating as circumstances and values change, which in turn requires democratic deliberation and a dialogue between the parties involved.  Single, blanket solutions are not likely to work. Consumers are a highly diverse group, with very different attitudes towards information sharing, different types of concerns, and different degrees of willingness to share information. Some people want to share more than others,because they believe they will benefit from a ‘value exchange’ transaction. Others are happy to share a huge amount of information about themselves, irrespective of personal benefits.

Opinions will become more diverse as the demographics of internet use continue to expand.  The report suggests that regulators AND businesses (perhaps “organisations”…) need to find a flexible & dynamic framework for privacy which recognises the diversity of views and enables a variety of ways and levels in/to which people can “customise & negotiate” their relationship with organisations.

Three key principles are proposed to help establish this approach to data sharing: offering informed choice, having meaningful options and elucidating the mutual benefit of doing so.  All of these require simplicity and transparency – about how and what data are collected, how they might be shared,  This includes both personally-identifying data and generic behavioural data which could be aggregated/anonymised.

The report clearly identifies the mutual benefit that *may* derive from sharing information both for consumers/individuals and for companies/organisations.

People recognise that there are potential benefits to them, but at present do not see how they are realised for consumers. As a result, consumers may not be making informed decisions about withholding their data and protecting their privacy, or sharing data and obtaining benefits. It is important to make ‘value exchange’ transactions between consumers and companies more explicit. At the moment people are entering into an exchange but are not always sure what they are trading. It is vital to make the currency of the exchange more explicit to all parties, so that trust is established.  Any information policy must be based on fully elucidating the benefits of sharing information for individuals and companies.  Companies and organisations that take information sharing concerns seriously will be rewarded by consumers. The research suggests that people are willing to share information, but have doubts and concerns about how this is done at present.

I originally intended this post to be about data protection/information governance issues – which of course it is.  But the Ruskin student records episode illustrates this latter point from an archival perspective too – the “information sharing concerns” have generally been articulated as the preservation and future sharing through research of the student records, which the College is not perceived to have taken seriously.  There is a definitely willingness to share information on the part of alumni and their families through the preservation of the archival records.

Tr. Sophocles Oedipus Colonus l.611  θνῄσκει δὲ πίστις, βλαστάνει δ᾽ἀπιστία


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