FEATURE27 October 2015

A question of trust

Data analytics Features Privacy Public Sector UK

At a Debating Group event last night, sponsored by the Market Research Society (MRS), Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos MORI and Stephan Shakespeare, CEO and co-founder of YouGov put forward the motion that personal data is safer in the hands of market research than government.


The motion was opposed by Jo Swinson, vice chair of the Prime Minister’s Digital Task Force 2015 and director of Clear Returns, and Hetan Shah, executive director of The Royal Statistical Society.

The debate, held at the House of Commons, was made pertinent by the recent data leak from telecoms company Talk Talk, which put the personal data of millions of UK customers at risk.

In his opening speech, Page argued that because the livelihoods of those working in the research industry depend on people “freely and willingly giving us their data”, this meant that researchers could be better trusted to take the responsibility more seriously. “We will go bust as an industry if we don’t keep that trust. The government won’t,” he said. “My entire living depends on maintaining public trust.”

Swinson opened her argument with her belief that no one is good enough at data security: “the government isn’t uniquely bad, and market research isn’t uniquely good,” she said. She went on to argue that the government is under higher scrutiny than the private sector, and said that the increasing use of mobile technology in market research is introducing significant risks for data protection, as data security measures cannot keep pace with these changes. She concluded that “any industry that thinks they have this [data security] sussed is worryingly complacent.”

Also supporting the motion, Shakespeare pointed out that a key difference between the research industry and government is that data is acquired with very different types of consent. “People give us data precisely in order that we share it,” he said. “They normally give the government data because they have to”. He echoed Page in pointing out the inevitable repercussions if the research industry was negligent with data. “If we make an error, there is redress. We are instantly at risk of losing our jobs. Bureaucracies are not in any way subject to the same pressures that companies surely are.”

Lastly, Shah argued that the fact that the MRS set up the Fair Data initiative was testament to the fact that there was a problem with data security in the industry. He also pointed towards “the rise of the data scientists in companies you’ve probably never heard of, mashing together data from sites where you probably haven’t read the terms and conditions,” as a key issue. He argued that while market research firms are accountable to customers, they’re also accountable to shareholders, and that there was a “new breed of market research firm, undercutting traditional firms and hoovering up data to use against you”.

Comments from the floor included a number of people supporting the motion by saying that while data handling was just a small part of the government’s remit, it is so central to the market research industry that safe data practices are deeply entrenched. Others pointed out the need for researchers to gain explicit consent for data gathering as another argument in support of the motion.

The final vote came out in favour of the motion.

1 Comment

8 years ago

I was at the debate last night. It was really good to hear such resounding support for the market research industry and our robust Data Protection practices. Jo and Hetan made a spirited argument against the motion but had no hope against our industry which has a clean bill of health in this area (unlike the Government).

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