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Your personal data is a product

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Survey shows most consumers are concerned over lack of control in how their data is mined

Day after day, click after click, buy after buy, thumbs up or thumbs down, our actions leave our digital footprints that will be there even after us.

Once data is produced, it rarely fades away. Our personal data is constantly collected, monetised and traded in this new economy.

The digitisation of our lives has made an abundance of personal data publicly available, which could be easily exploited.

In fact, our latest research of some 2,400 consumers across Asia-Pacific reveal that 55 per cent of those we surveyed strongly feel that their data is being sold to third parties (such as advertisers, insurance companies and telecom operators).

For example, Acxiom Corp, a leading data broker, collects 1,500 data points a person for 700 million people worldwide. It processes over 50 trillion sales transactions a year by selling consumer data multiple times to multiple customers.

In Singapore, 90 per cent of mobile apps do not adequately declare specifically which consumer data is collected or how it is used - potentially failing to meet Personal Data Protection Act guidelines.

Even fitness trackers sell your personal data to companies.

It is no wonder that consumers (58 per cent) in the region have a growing concern over their lack of control in how their data is mined.

The data footprint we leave today is magnifying, exponentially, in a connected world where everything from wearables to home appliances, smartphones and cars can now be synced.

In fact, 3 billion to 5 billion new consumers, who have never purchased, uploaded, invented or sold anything are about to come online and provide a mega-surge to the global economy.

As a result, data-related issues will only get more complicated. Concerns continue to grow and the question becomes: Where is the tipping point?

Consider these regional data:

  • 65 per cent of those surveyed are concerned about online theft. One-third of respondents (or their family or friends) reported that their personal data (credit card, bank details, health information and so on) had been stolen or compromised in the last two to three years.
  • 63 per cent believe companies are accessing personal information they did not explicitly provide (social network profile, contacts list, location data and so on).
  • 57 per cent believe their online behaviour is being tracked.
  • 53 per cent are concerned about physical safety as their identity is being tracked online.

The deepening issue is the growing lack of trust between people and the companies that use personal data in a way consumers were not expecting.

It is not a surprise that no industry we studied is perceived as highly trustworthy by consumers when it comes to the use of their personal information.

Only 43 per cent of consumers have a great level of trust in institutions across industries. In fact, 53 per cent do not always believe that companies do what they say they will to protect client data privacy. They click blindly and hope for the best.

Many companies believe they have done their job by publishing data privacy and security policies. But over half of the consumers we surveyed told us: "These policies are Greek to us!"

That is why most of us pay scant attention to 'terms and conditions' before pressing the 'I accept' button".

Almost 50 per cent of consumers surveyed agreed that there is no data privacy with everything being online.

The notion of privacy will undergo a radical change over the next decade. It is likely what is seen as the unethical sale of data today will be acceptable tomorrow.

When the information highway opened a few years ago, we saw a wave of fear concerning data privacy, control, intrusion and hacking.

But despite the concerns, smartphones and social media have become permanent fixtures in our lives. Consumers are still likely to disclose personal information online, download apps, upload images, and follow free sites.

Let's accept it - we tend to focus more on the benefits we'll get out of the activity online, than the risk of engaging in it.

As consumers become more educated about how a company is using their data, they may be willing to assume more risk in exchange for some form of value (a personalised experience, discounts, coupons and so on).

This trade-off, called give-to-get ratio, will be the new norm of privacy in the future.

In fact, 46 per cent of consumers believe the risk of sharing personal information is worth the personalised products, services and offers they get in return.

But they will have to accept that in getting these products, they are becoming a product themselves as nothing is free.

The writer is senior director, Centre for the Future of Work, at Cognizant. This article appeared in The Business Times yesterday.