Tech City UK Blog

We recently had the pleasure of being visited by Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission. Ms Kroes and Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech discussed various vital issues to the growth of the EU’s digital economy. Gerard was asked to submit an opinion piece on one of those pressing issues, privacy in the digital age for “Digital Minds for a New Europe”.

Caught in a wave

We are in a period of seismic change. Not since the advent of the industrial revolution has humanity witnessed comparable levels of innovation and technological advancement.

As the digital sector grows exponentially, and with it the amount of time we spend online, the process of debate and policy implementation is often forced to exist in a reactive rather than proactive state.

It’s hardly surprising. With technology developing so fast, it’s hard to take stock and reflect on the impact on our society, and what the long-term implications of the digital revolution might be.

And it’s easy to be blinded by all the benefits. Digital technology is democratising education, revolutionising healthcare, increasing competition in e-commerce to the benefit of consumers and vastly increasing the ways in which we communicate with each other, and with organisations.

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But along with all these benefits, a thorny question has yet to be resolved. Given the startling level of transparency the Internet is producing, what happens to our privacy? How do we, as a society, recalibrate our treatment of personal data for the 21st century?

We have entered a complex system of information flow, in which the channels are as varied as the content rushing through them. And the pace of change is relentless, as innovators seek to meet the demands of consumers, businesses and government, and to fast track the exchange of information and data.

Never before has our personal information been so widely disseminated. Where once our private data was obtained through coercion, we now readily hand it over for access to a digital network, product or service. Significant amounts of this data is now in the hands of commercial organisations.

We can, quite literally, be watched.

Putting a value on privacy

Think about it for a minute. Not many of us would invite a big brand into our private home, to monitor our movements as we walk from kitchen to bedroom, switching on the TV or opening a magazine. Yet that is exactly what is happening as we go online and browse. Yes, we can go into our online settings and opt out—but how many of us take the time?

There is a real issue to be resolved here. Yet frustratingly, the debate around privacy has thus far centred around three simplistic viewpoints.

In one corner stand the civil-liberty protestors, waving their flags against the growing invasion of our personal life, angry at the lack of regulation, which they claim allows unscrupulous business practices to proliferate.

In another corner smile the business-minded pragmatists, who believe that targeted advertising and preference mapping are creating a totally personalised consumer experience, with spam advertising now replaced by individually relevant content. What’s not to like about that?

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Then there are the digital enthusiasts, proclaiming the dawning of an age of groundbreaking information equality, in which emerging technologies have placed unprecedented power in the hands of individuals to hold political and corporate leaders to account.

But these simplistic positions are yesterday’s news. They may even be stifling real debate.  It’s time for the privacy wars to move on.

In truth, the picture is tantalisingly complex. In today’s digital age, privacy can no longer be an all-or-nothing scenario. On the contrary, I believe we could be moving into an era in which privacy becomes commoditised.

You want it, I’ve got it

What if, in this new digital era, privacy becomes a personal asset? Could my personal data, much sought after by others, become a virtual currency that I use to barter and negotiate with?

Like the systems of commercial exchange that started centuries ago at the dawn of capitalism, we may now be entering an era of privacy negotiation.

Companies are desperate for our personal data. It’s the lifeblood of their commercial strategy, allowing them to segment, target and convert browsers into buyers. But individuals own this information, along with the physical devices that get us online to start with.

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What if we could set the parameters of our online experience directly with programmatic exchange networks and digital service providers, in a process of mutual negotiation? Not simply by ticking boxes, but by engaging directly with individuals behind the digital services we use. You create the terms of access, you set the business rules, you decide the level of personal data that is handed over – you, the user, are empowered.

In this new world, the individual could decide what level of privacy he or she forgoes in order to access a digital service. Depending on the level of personal data they are willing to share, they create a personalised portal. Less privacy, less access to the network; more privacy, more access.

It’s time for an intelligent data exchange. There is the potential for real benefit if we accept that a new privacy culture exists, and that there may be tangible ways of making it work for everyone.

What shape the new system will take, what technology it will use and how it will work, no one yet knows. Yet at the rate digital technology is moving, I’m willing to bet that someone is working on it right now.