Lesley Holmes Data Protection Officer at leading HR and payroll
provider MHR gives a valuable insight into the future of technology
and how the axis of power may sway towards tech leaders.
A phrase I hear a
lot is that ‘data is the new oil’, in reference to data as an extremely
valuable commodity, which is increasing in value year by year and may well one
day have a similar value to fossil fuels.
If data is the new
oil, then the people controlling the data must be the new oil barons, maybe
even becoming even more powerful than individual oil barons at some point in
the future, as they are not tied to set geographical areas for ‘mining’ and
will never run out of new data.
Oil prices in the
global marketplace are controlled by a handful of people, yet the decisions
they make have a huge impact on world economies, so the power of data might
just create a similar group of digital oligarchs.
I feel that the
use of ‘data-mining’ by these individuals can be used in several ways:
- For the public benefit.
- For the benefit of a particular organisation using
its own collated data.
- For the purposes of monetisation or to influence
outcomes through targeted marketing.
understand that data can benefit us all in various ways, like anti-terrorism
work and to detect other crimes, through the use of statistics, or using CCTV
footage to log crimes.
collate data from both public and private sources to help plan public services
better and prevent economic, social and environmental issues, by identifying
Data can also be
used for things like medical research, or to gauge public opinion and is often
done by public bodies with the public interest at heart, so data isn’t used
directly for profit; the research is done to benefit us all.
using its own collateral.
gather their own data, in accordance with their privacy notice, which will make
clear what they are doing and why (in most cases anyway!).
They use this data
to improve the services they offer, work out the effectiveness of their
marketing and plan their workforce; not to mention informing strategies for
performance and profitability.
Data also has
specific uses, like assessing actuarial risk in the insurance industry, with
the aim of providing a better service based on strong data, so we get a better
quote if we are low risk customers, so there are many positives to gathering
Aside from using
data to assist customers, organisations can use data they hold on their own
employees for purposes which help the business, like monitoring performance
trends, absence management and workforce optimisation.
obvious benefit of using company data to build a better business, organisations
over a certain size are required to produce reports for the government. An
obvious example of this in recent memory, was the introduction of Gender Pay
Gap reporting, part of a wider investigation into equal pay in the UK, taking
personal data and anonymising it for reporting purposes. There is debate over
whether this data might be misused and encroach on personal freedom, but that’s
a discussion for another day…
For the purposes
In the last year
there has been a huge list of articles written which illustrate the risks of
big data when misused, most notably the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data
breach, but this isn’t an isolated event. Just like the oil barons discussed at
the beginning of this article, many other companies are extracting and refining
your personal data like oil for massive profits.
Data is already
taking a sinister turn.
Hidden cameras are
now being used which implement facial detection software to establish which adverts
shoppers like best. As they walk through shopping centres, the cameras gauge
the reaction to each advert, changing these when the reaction is a negative
While this seems
like a great advance in technology, there is an issue.
use facial detection (capturing a blurry image), rather than true facial
recognition, but the quality of data is sufficient to distinguish gender with
90% accuracy, age to within five years and mood range (from very happy to very
unhappy) to around 80% accuracy. In many countries this happens without
consent, or even customer knowledge, which is a worrying trend.
This shows the
world is changing.
discussion around facial recognition technologies suggest these will be
exploited further to enhance the customer experience. This will come through
utilisation of ATM identity verification and hotel check-in processes, designed
to increase customer satisfaction while reducing employee demand.
Behind the scenes,
data-sets are manipulated and combined to identify trends, forecast spending
patterns, and other activities which lead to profits; including the use of
personal data for commercial purposes – such as drug trials by companies hoping
to create expensive products from the data they gather.
Facebook of course
allowed an app to harvest millions of data items to target content which may
have created political sway, which demonstrates the power of the tech companies
to influence political and social outcomes. There is much speculation
about how harvested data has been used in the political environment and who
knows? We may ourselves have been influenced by such data.
For the prevention
and detection of crime.
Data, personal and
otherwise, has been used for years to help prevent and detect crime. The use of
forensic techniques started in China in the 700’s when fingerprints were
starting to be used, but the most significant breakthroughs came in the last
century with the creation of dedicated teams to deal with this area of
Now the Chinese
again lead the way with facial recognition being used to identify and capture
criminals as they move around the major cities. With the largest number of CCTV
cameras, China is probably embracing the technology for more than just
So what are the
What’s clear is
that these ‘data barons’ can use the data for good, but they will be (and
perhaps already are) so powerful that anything other than the most scrupulous
data usage has the potential for disastrous societal issues.
Objection to overzealous
state control has resulted in everything from strongly worded literature to
violent protests, but at least governments can be held accountable, and we know
who’s in charge.
nature of the internet means that some of the most powerful public figures in
future will not be public at all, just pulling the strings through the
data-wells they possess.
What’s clear is
that we need to establish a way of controlling the use of data, or we lose
control of everything else.