As we look at the dynamic change shaping today’s data-driven world, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. We really do not know that much about it. Polarized along competing but fundamental principles, the global dialogue on personal data is inchoate and pulled in a variety of directions. It is complicated, conflated and often fueled by emotional reactions more than informed understandings.
The World Economic Forum’s global dialogue on personal data seeks to cut through this complexity. A multi-year initiative with global insights from the highest levels of leadership from industry, governments, civil society and academia, this work aims to articulate an ascendant vision of the value a balanced and human-centred personal data ecosystem can create.
Yet despite these aspirations, there is a crisis in trust. Concerns are voiced from a variety of viewpoints at a variety of scales. Industry, government and civil society are all uncertain on how to create a personal data ecosystem that is adaptive, reliable, trustworthy and fair.
The shared anxieties stem from the overwhelming challenge of transitioning into a hyperconnected world. The growth of data, the sophistication of ubiquitous computing and the borderless flow of data are all outstripping the ability to effectively govern on a global basis. We need the means to effectively uphold fundamental principles in ways fit for today’s world.
Yet despite the size and scope of the complexity, it cannot become a reason for inaction. The need for pragmatic and scalable approaches which strengthen transparency, accountability and the empowerment of individuals has become a global priority.
Tools are needed to answer fundamental questions: Who has the data? Where is the data? What is being done with it? All of these uncertainties need to be addressed for meaningful progress to occur.
Objectives need to be set. The benefits and harms for using personal data need be more precisely defined. The ambiguity surrounding privacy needs to be demystified and placed into a real-world context.
Individuals need to be meaningfully empowered. Better engagement over how data is used by third parties is one opportunity for strengthening trust. Supporting the ability for individuals to use personal data for their own purposes is another area for innovation and growth. But combined, the overall lack of engagement is undermining trust.
Collaboration is essential. The need for interdisciplinary collaboration between technologists, business leaders, social scientists, economists and policy-makers is vital. The complexities for delivering a sustainable and balanced personal data ecosystem require that these multifaceted perspectives are all taken into consideration.
With a new lens for using personal data, progress can occur.
Insights from the Global Dialogue
• Deliver meaningful transparency
Transparency practices need to be reframed to be more meaningful, actionable and relevant for individuals. Greater emphasis is needed on presenting individuals with understandable and relevant information on how data is being used. Organizations need to simplify the ways in which they communicate their data practices to reduce the complexity of transparency for individuals. Also needed are policies and tools for understanding how data flows “out the back door” of institutions. The forward transfer of data throughout the ecosystem is complex, opaque and drives uncertainty and suspicion.
• Strengthen accountability
As the calls increase for shifting the primary focus of governance to be more usage-based and contextual, holding relevant stakeholders of all sizes accountable in a defined and measureable way is a priority. There are significant supply-chain vulnerabilities in how data flows throughout the value chain. Trust networks and holistic incentive structures are needed to ensure principled and enforceable data use.
• Empower individuals
As the value and volumes of data originating from sensors and analytics increases, individuals are increasingly unaware and distanced from the decisions on how all this data is being used. Individuals need to be empowered in two ways: having a say in how data about them is used by organizations and having the capacities to use data for their own purposes. Additionally, as the predictive power of algorithms increases, individuals need to more effectively engage in understanding (and managing) the intended impact of data usage.