In the coming years, the world’s virtual population will outnumber the population of earth.
Practically every person will be represented in multiple ways online, creating new and vibrant communities whose virtual interactions will positively enrich the physical world around us.
What’s certain, is that all of these virtual citizens will create huge amounts of data. And whilst the future of our data could empower citizens in an unprecedented manner, a single important caveat exists: the data revolution will strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in the digital space.
This has the power to re-shape our world, but as long as the right steps are taken now, the future of our data and the consequences that come with it shouldn’t be as dire as some predict.
Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the City of Palo Alto, talks us through what we need to do, both as individuals and businesses to curb the potential problems that may emerge.
“Most people don’t really understand the degree to which their online behavior is being recorded and tracked,” begins Reichental.
“Some may have cottoned on to the fact that the purchases they make and websites they visit are being logged to help serve up relevant advertising and create unique online experiences.
But what gets glossed over far too readily is the degree of monitoring that goes on within medium to larger sized websites.”
“Here providers possess the ability to know the exact location of your cursor, where your finger is on a page, how long you spend there and then use that to be able to track your eyes and really work out how it is you look at a webpage.”
For the majority of virtual citizens, the problem here is an absence of knowledge.
And without the knowledge that these processes are happening, individuals often forget that their actions and decisions online can negatively impact their future.
Let’s take the extreme example of a candidate running for President of the United States in a decade or two from now.
As part of the inevitable analysis of that person’s background in the lead up to the election, much of their digital history habits will be fully accessible to the public.
Everyone will know what he or she has ordered on Amazon, the films they like to watch and every time they may have made a controversial comment on Facebook.
Whether they like it or not, any one of these things could potentially impact the public’s perception of that individual.
Extreme examples like this are reasons why “as a society and as business leaders, there needs to be a concerted effort, a proactive effort to explain what is really happening.”
The big companies aren’t the problem
We are beginning to see moves made by larger companies to target this absence of knowledge.
These moves are perhaps the result of the media magnifying glass placed over dominant players like Google and Facebook in recent years. The effect of which has provided more clarity on tracking techniques, affording individuals more control over their privacy settings over their profiles.
Facebook, for example, on a periodic basis prompts users to take a look at their privacy settings to see if there is anything they would like to change. Coupling this with a simpler interface has undoubtedly had a positive effect.
“Yet I don’t think it is enough,” Reichental implores.
“It’s a serious topic not taken as seriously, and a partial approach to changing a particular mind-set around online privacy and security won’t be enough to protect us in the future.
A recent survey on cyber security suggests 70% of businesses believe they understand the potential risks of online activity, I’m certain that this 70% weren’t taking action.”
So what needs to be done?
We must recognize the value to businesses of logging and recording consumer behavior online.
The incentives that come with continuing to do so are obvious, and as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, it will only evolve to become more granular and valuable.
But, there will be a tipping point in the future where society will band together and demand control over the future of our data.
Reichental believes that “sites clearly misusing data will be avoided, and businesses will have to adapt accordingly. This may have to happen the hard way, but I feel it will happen nonetheless.”
He gives the US retailer Target as an example of this.
In 2014 they had 40 million of their credit and debit cards hacked. For Target, an embarrassing episode and for the customers involved, a serious headache.
This was a real shock to the system, not just for Target, but for US credit and debit card providers across the whole of the US.
They realized that to avoid this kind of hack again, opting for European ‘Chip and Pin” enabled cards opposed to a simple magnetic strip would be wiser.
The real challenge now, is for businesses to achieve transparency and for society to work out how much privacy and freedom it is willing to renounce.