FEATURE20 June 2013

Data exchange

Features UK

Big Brother Watch’s Nick Pickles discusses the pros and cons of the personal information economy. Interview by Simon Miller.

Stories about data are rarely out of the news these days: whether it’s technologists extolling the virtues of big data, governments promising to open up their archives or privacy groups sounding the alarm about how much personal information is now up for grabs by private interests.

Among those urging caution is Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch. Pickles says that, from mobile phones to London Underground Oyster cards and contactless payments, there is a huge amount of data now linked to our identity.

“The whole point of buying paper train tickets or paying in cash was that you couldn’t get to such a degree of granularity where you could understand what specific people do. But now you can look at what tube stations they commute through, what newspapers they have subscriptions to, whether they shop at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose or Harrods – all through the transaction data that people generate through their lives,” he says.

Theoretically, of course, sharing this data has benefits for consumers. Survey results published this week by IPG Mediabrands and Microsoft show that 48% of consumers realise that their digital identity has value; that 45% of consumers were open to sharing their digital data in exchange for better ads; and that 59% of consumers were willing to buy a product or service from a brand that offered a reward in exchange for their digital data.

Pickles acknowledges that there is an implicit trade-off between ‘free’ services and data collection – as is the case with Google services, for example. However, he says others are monetising data despite being paid for services rendered.

“If you are a mobile phone company and you want to [use customer data] to improve your service that’s fine,” says Pickles. “But you shouldn’t be charging someone else to access that data.

“If the money is flowing into the company that holds this data, the likelihood is that the data is not being used for the benefit of its customers, but for someone else’s customers.

“People expect their privacy to be respected and as soon as companies start to get near the profiteering line, trust breaks down and you start to lose customers. And companies that sell themselves as privacy-friendly will take those customers away.”

Pickles thinks that as consumers become more concerned about the use of their data, services will spring up to help people manage their data and monetise it.

“That’s taking us back to a model 15 years ago where companies had to pay money [to get data] in the first place,” he says.