The personal data wake-up call business needs to hear

 
Jason du Preez
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The data scandal wiped billions off the value of Facebook shares (Source: Getty)

TO BORROW a phrase, with great power comes great responsibility. The scandal that has erupted around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica this week has shocked the markets, with billions wiped off the value of Facebook and social media stocks hitting the skids as investors fear a regulatory backlash.

The situation appears to be a dereliction of duty, with politicians on both sides of the pond demanding answers. Privacy has never been higher in the public or political consciousness.

It is not just politicians, investors, and shocked users of social media who are following the story closely.

Read more: DEBATE: Should we be worried about the Cambridge Analytica data row?

Companies around the world – from banks to telecommunications firms to retailers – hold huge amounts of personal data on their customers, and will be considering carefully what this news means for them.

Undoubtedly, technological advances in data analysis have brought huge benefits to our daily lives. Just think about how you now shop or how your bank prevents fraud when you are on holiday.

Data-driven insight enables businesses to improve customer experiences and drive profitability.

However, up until the introduction of the EU-wide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the huge power of personal data has been left largely unchecked. This week’s news will set so-called big data back, but I do believe that it is an important wake-up call to business.

The GDPR, which seeks to set out ground rules on the day-to-day use of data, is a monumental step forward. But arguably, like most regulation, it is just a baseline.

Companies that want to reap the rewards of data innovation need to embrace and exceed these standards. They need to think ahead of the regulations, demonstrating to their customers a stringent code of ethics around how their personal data is used.

Thankfully, technological advances in data science enable companies to have their cake and eat it.

The academic field of privacy engineering has developed alongside machine learning and privacy enhancing technologies which can be used to protect personal data and enable safe and ethical analysis.

This is a growing market, and London is home to an increasing number of companies that are elaborating and commercialising this research.

The allure and promise of data science grows more appealing alongside an ever-increasing supply of personal data. We all want a faster, more tailored, more efficient service, and it is not just about convenience and a better experience.

Dare to imagine the benefits data science could have for the NHS – it presents the opportunity to improve patient diagnoses, cure disease, and save vital funds.

This week’s news highlights that businesses, and, indeed, any organisations that hold sensitive personal data, need to ensure that they are taking advantage of progress in data science to defend privacy, as well as for commercial gain.

It is also a wake-up call to us all, as consumers, to think more carefully about the access and permissions we are giving to our most personal of information.

Read more: The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica has been suspended

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