Can We Balance Data Protection With Value Creation?

In the last few years there has been a dramatic change in the opportunities organizations have to generate value from the data they collect about customers or service users. Customers and users are rapidly becoming collections of “data points” and organizations can learn an awful lot from the analysis of this huge accumulation of data points, also known as “Big Data.”

Organizations are perhaps thrilled, dreaming about new potential applications of digital data but also a bit concerned about hidden risks and unintended consequences. Take, for example, the human rights protections placed on personal data by the EU.  Regulators are watching closely, intending to preserve the eight basic privacy principles without compromising the free flow of information.

Some may ask whether it’s even possible to balance the two.

Enter the Big Data Protection Project (BDPP): an Open University study on organizations’ ability to leverage Big Data while complying with EU data protection principles.

The study represents a chance for you to contribute to, and learn about, the debate on the reform of the EU Data Protection Directive. It is open to staff with interests in data management or use, from all types of organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, with interests in Europe.

The study represents a chance for you to contribute to, and learn about, the debate on the reform of the EU Data Protection Directive. It is open to staff with interests in data management or use, from all types of organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, with interests in Europe.

Join us by visiting the study’s page on the Open University website. Participants will receive a report with all the results. The BDP is a scientific project—no commercial organization is involved—with implications relevant to both policy-makers and industry representatives.

Background and Objectives of the Big Data Protection Project

What kind of legislation do we need to create that positive system of incentive for organizations to innovate in the privacy field?

There is no easy answer.

That’s why we need to undertake empirical research into actual information management practices to understand the effects of regulation on people and organizations. Legal instruments conceived with the best intentions can be ineffective or detrimental in practice. However, other factors can also intervene and motivate business players to develop procedures and solutions which go far beyond compliance. Good legislation should complement market forces in bringing values and welfare to both consumers and organizations.

Is European data protection law keeping its promise of protecting users’ information privacy while contributing to the flourishing of the digital economy or not? Will the proposed General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) be able to achieve this goal? What would you suggest to do to motivate organizations to invest in information security and take information privacy seriously?

Let’s consider for a second some basic ideas such as the eight fundamental data protection principles: notice, consent, purpose specification and limitation, data quality, respect of data subjects’ rights, information security and accountability. Many of these ideas are present in the EU 1995 Data Protection Directive, the U.S. Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPPs) andthe 1980 OECD Guidelines. The fundamental question now is, should all these ideas be brought into the future, as suggested in the proposed new GDPR, orshould we reconsider our approach and revise some of them, as recommended in the 21st century version of the 1980 OECD Guidelines?

A principle such as data quality, which has received very limited attention, could offer opportunities to policy-makers and businesses to reopen the debate on users’ control of their personal data.

As you may know, notice and consent are often taken as examples of how very good intentions can be transformed into actions of limited importance. Rather than increase people’s awareness of the growing data economy, notice and consent have produced a tick-box tendency accompanied by long and unintelligible privacy policies. Besides, consent is rarely freely granted. Individuals give their consent in exchange for some product or service or as part of a job relationship. The imbalance between the two goods traded—think about how youngsters perceive not having access to some social media as a form of social exclusion—and the lack of feasible alternatives often make an instrument, such as the current use made of consent, meaningless.

On the other hand, a principle such as data quality, which has received very limited attention, could offer opportunities to policy-makers and businesses to reopen the debate on users’ control of their personal data. Having updated, accurate data is something very valuable for organizations. Data quality is also key to the success of many business models. New partnerships between users and organizations could be envisioned under this principle.

Finally, data collection limitation and purpose specification could be other examples of the divide between theory and practice: The tendency we see is that people and businesses want to share, merge and reuse data over time and to do new and unexpected things. Of course, we all want to avoid function creep and prevent any detrimental use of our personal data. We probably need new, stronger mechanisms to ensure data are used for good purposes.

Digital data have become economic assets these days. We need good legislation to stop the black market for personal data and open the debate on how each of us wants to contribute to, and benefit from, the data economy.

Written By

Sara Degli Esposti


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  • IdroAl Feb 21, 2014

    I regret to inform you that the survey does not function and will not let me complete it. It gets stuck in the box after the graph on using big data where I selected the first option but the site sees me as having also selected "None of the above". I tried various options to overcome it including selecting only "None of the above" but it wil not accept the input. Thought yo might like to know in case others have the same issue and pull out of the survey. Sounds like an interesting study though.

  • Sara Degli Esposti Feb 22, 2014

    Truly sorry to hear that, but thanks a lot for letting me know. Many people have already managed to complete the survey: it's not clear what triggered the problem. Anyway, please be patient and have another go: the changes I've made should prevent this from occurring again. You can also copy and paste the study's web address directly into your browser: https://openbusinessschool.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_8es4mH7bio2rdf7 Feel free to share the link with your colleagues and to drop me an email if you have any other questions/doubts sara.degliesposti@open.ac.uk. All the best and thank you very much for your contribution!


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