Personal Data Exploitation – Recent Reports

A Tesco advert I’ve noticed airing again recently shows how data collected around a Tesco Clubcard can be used to prepopulate an online shopping basket using Tesco Direct using just(?) the Clubcard number:

(It’s not quite that simple of course. Form a quick look at the Tesco website, you first need to register an account with, then I’m guessing there’s some simple name/address validation around whatever Clubcard number you enter before the data is revealed to you.)

Over July and August, BIS picked up a bit of publicity around the #midata policy initiative that seeks to encourage businesses to make consumer data and data products available back to the consumers who generate it (eg From Communications Data to #midata – with a Mobile Phone Data Example). You can get an idea about how BIS are trying to woo businesses into getting on board from the midata company briefing pack (July 2012).

Whilst the talk was all upbeat, a Jigsaw Research report for BIS on Potential consumer demand for midata was more circumspect:

Whilst consumers have nagging concerns about the security and privacy of their data online, the majority of those who choose to transact online currently put these concerns to the back of their mind. This is because most people perceive the benefits of being online to outweigh the risks; it is also due to most not fully understanding the nature of the ‘threat’ as they have limited understanding of how their data is currently collected and used by third parties as well as about what value it holds or how to protect themselves against misuse. People therefore avoid dwelling on these nagging and undetermined concerns and rely on the absence for most of any serious incident in their previous experience. In many respects, they can be described as ‘sleep walking’ in the age of data.

When initially shown an expression of the midata concept, consumers were bewildered about why this is being proposed and what difference it would make. As consumers typically define personal data as personal identity information, they struggled initially to identify what benefits the release of such data (which they already own/know) would have for them.

There is unlikely to be very much initial consumer interest in the overarching principle of companies releasing personal data for use by consumers. If anything, this news is likely to be received with suspicion until the benefits of this can be observed in practice.

Adoption of #midata services would therefore be driven by companies developing data related products and services rather than meeting a need articulated by consumers.

A new (O2 sponsored?) report from Demos – The Data Dialogue (Sept 2012) – on an O2 commissioned survey “looking into the public’s attitudes towards personal information”. Apparently, “[t]he 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.”

I haven’t had a chance – yet – to read the report (it’s only just come out…) but when I do I’ll probably also read it in the context of some other related reports on personal data (including rereading the Jigsaw consumer interest report around #midata). My gut feeling(?!;-) is that there isn’t really much concern (other than the sort of concern expressed when someone asks you whether you are concerned about something in a tone that suggests you should be…), rather there is a background level of disinterest and then mild confusion if forced to consider it at all…

Anyway, here are some of the other reports in the area:

Given the notion of trust is a big part of this, maybe I need to give my colleague Ray Corrigan’s recent presentation on Trust in the Digital Economy (conference page) a close reading too, along with this First Monday article by Bibi van den Berg and Simone van der Hof: What happens to my data? A novel approach to informing users of data processing practices

Hmmm… maybe I need to block a couple of days away somewhere to just get through them and try to plot out their various lobbying positions…?

PS a couple of other things caught my eye in the last day or too… via @jonhew and @martinstabe, an ICO ruling about whether database queries create new information for the purposes of FOI (answer: it depends how hard the query is to write..) and an Out-Law note on the legitimacy (or otherwise) of outsourcing the processing of sensitive personal data.

PPS Seems like the OU is a founder member of the new Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP). It launches at the OU in Milton Keynes on September 20th, with a panel session on “The Future of Information, Surveillance and Privacy Research” (press welcome, I believe…).

PPPS loosely related, from late last year, a news report on how Visa/Mastercard were planning to start selling on anonymised data to marketers… I’m not sure if/how this has progressed? Also loosely related: arXiv: A Theory of Pricing Private Data; OU study on Consumer Activity Data: Usages and Challenges.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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