The data that powers the smart technologies credited with improving people’s lives is also central to cybersecurity threats, privacy scandals and the sometimes questionable practices of tech giants; it’s having an impact across everything from emotional health to politics to the fight against climate change.

A new report from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, The Privacy Era, highlights the numerous ways in which increasingly personal data is collected, the often unethical ways in which it is managed when it isn’t being hacked, and ponders the implications of an AI-driven future.

We’re living in an era where “addressing the impact of a personal-information free-for-all is an urgent priority,” it states.

Look around and you see that data has become a political force as China and the US battle over apps and information; tracing apps designed to curb the spread of COVID-19 have raised new privacy concerns; the growing use of facial recognition technology has opened a debate about the biases of image-processing algorithms.

The report also notes the emotional aspect of personal data use – 55% of consumers feel disoriented and 48% feel violated when notified of a security issue with their details – whilst the majority of people (71%) believe that they should have control over the security and privacy of their own personal information.

Then there is the eco-problem created by storing all that data. When Huawei first looked at this issue in 2015, it forecast that data storage could constitute around 8% of the world’s electricity usage by 2030; two years later, these figures were dramatically revised to suggest up to 20% of electricity consumption by 2025.

The environmental issue has barely begun to be addressed, but governments are starting to legislate for and regulate data collection and use. They’re chasing the game, however, since tech innovation moves faster. Some observers also suggest they need to take a more nuanced approach to data and privacy as, in the words of Ari Levenfeld, chief privacy officer at Quantcast, “data falls on a spectrum of sensitivity”.

And while companies and brands have responded to the new requirements, consumers are often left to take on trust complicated or opaque privacy policies or forego using their devices altogether.

It does not help that consumers tend not to know the difference nor distinguish between data privacy and data security, meaning that “legislators are facing a precarious balancing act between protecting citizens through regulation of data and protecting them through its use”.

But US consumers have a clear sense that, over the past few years, companies have received more control over their personal information and data than they have (84% think this), and they feel companies are deliberately vague about how the “data for benefit” exchange works (89%).

Even Chinese consumers, long regarded as willing to trade privacy for convenience, appear increasingly aware of the downsides. A recent Mintel survey of 3,000 Chinese consumers found 79% do not allow mobile apps to run and collect data when the app is not in use, while 46% said they would rather not use an app than provide unnecessary personal data.

The report concludes that current data regulation may be inadequate and that brands have a role to play in helping consumers “co-exist with data”: a clear exchange, allowing people to control and value their data for services, could be emerging as a way forward. It may also be necessary to the reposition digital identity as something equal to physical being. 

Sourced from Wunderman Thompson Intelligence