Data has become the lifeblood of the digital age, flowing into every corner of our lives and forcing authorities to review concepts like privacy and confidentiality. Senior sub-editor from creative agency Edge, Helen Eva, looks at both sides of the data coin.
Data. The Big Brother who is watching and recording our every move and whim. The so-called ‘new oil’ of the 21st century.
Just as the real black gold has fuelled massive change, its digital namesake is underpinning a revolution that is already reshaping the way we live – with or without our knowledge or permission.
Every time we use our mobile, turn on the internet or swipe a card, we reveal to a company – often unwittingly – who we are, where we live, what we like.
The positive aspects of these data-mining activities are reflected in myriad ways – from breakthroughs in medical research to smart homes and tailored products and services.
The burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) illustrates just how diverse and transformative the data business has become. What began in 1982 with a soft drink machine that was able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold, the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion interconnected objects by 2020, according to the experts. Wearable heart monitors, sprinklers that sync with moisture sensors to ensure your garden flourishes, devices that track the contents of your fridge or dim the lights when you leave a room … data is at the core of all these breakthrough technologies.
As famed English physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox said: “Our insatiable quest for information is the making of us.”
But can it sometimes be the undoing of us, too? Consider the following. In June this year, Google was accused of spying on its users, via an in-built microphone designed to allow Chrome users to conduct Google searches by voice. Privacy advocates claimed that “without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that … had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room”. Google, of course, was quick to deny the spying charge, but citizen watchdogs remain unconvinced and point to Google’s apparent willingness to share swathes of private user information with the American government.
Such is the pervasiveness and power of data now that governments and organisations worldwide are having to rethink the guidelines and parameters on issues like privacy, confidentiality and informed consent.
This topic – under the banner ‘Who’s Looking at You?’ – was discussed at length recently at the Centre for Advancing Journalism in Melbourne. One of the many anecdotes to emerge from the forum was the fact that about 80 per cent of information gathered by the Australian government has an address attached to it. By linking and sharing that data, public officials can plan in detail and assemble an intricate picture that not only tells them who lives in which street, but also what the debt level is in that area and even who has back problems!
Australian Information Commissioner Professor John McMillan told the assembled throng that “anonymity is dead” and talked of the ethical and legal ramifications of using data where personal information might be involved.
Fellow panellist Professor Julian Savulescu, from the University of Oxford, warned of the possible consequences of sharing information on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. He related the story of gun ownership data that was released publicly in New York: It was not those who were identified as owning a weapon who were up in arms (so to speak) but rather those who were identified as not owning a gun who were outraged, as they felt vulnerable to attack.
The third panel member, The Age’s data reporter Craig Butt, likened the release of personal information to “leaving your house”. In demonstrating that all of us should be mindful of what we put in the public domain, he cited the hiring practice of a large global management consultancy: The first two steps it takes when going through job applications is to check the applicant’s social media sites; then it calls the applicant’s mobile number to see what sort of voicemail message is on the phone.
When it comes to the media and marketing world, Edge managing partner and strategy director Richard Parker says a data-driven approach has become crucial to creating content that consumers want to receive. Similarly, skills in data capture and technology are enabling advertisers to send tailored messages to devices of people with relevant interests.
For their part, consumers will reward companies that they feel can be trusted with their data and information.
As the Centre for Advancing Journalism points out, the explosion of digital data provides the potential for enormous breakthroughs in areas like communications and research – but it also throws up new challenges and dilemmas in relation to data governance, data security and data management.
The new oil, it seems, is yet to be refined.