We are all online in some way, however, many people barely understand the value exchange occurring. Every click, website visit, sales transaction and social media engagement is logged by a tech company, tracked and pored over. This data that consumers create as they go about their daily activities is invaluable to companies. Indeed, the most valuable companies today aren’t the ones with the largest property portfolios or the most products. They are the organisations that have – and use – the most data. 

How much data is there?

Google processes 3.5 billion searches per day. Each search query gives insights on our desires, our concerns and our interests. Valuable information that businesses will pay top dollar for. Which is exactly what Google has done with its data. It packages it up and sells the insights on as part of its advertising service.  

An estimated 3.7 billion humans use the Internet, producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day. Whilst 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years, the pace of this will rise dramatically as the Internet of Things (IoT) gains momentum. Plus, there are numerous efforts from Facebook and Google to bring Internet connectivity to the developing world.

Concerns after data scandals

However, for those currently logged in, worries are surfacing about the security and use of their personal data. Scandals such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shone an unpleasant spotlight on unethical data use. Consumers are waking up to the value exchange that they, perhaps unwittingly, have signed up to. They are also learning about the power of their data and their consent. 

57% of UK adults are currently concerned about the amount of data that they share online. A further 29% of parents are concerned about ‘sharenting’ – sharing information about their children online. Indeed, 80% of children have an online presence before they turn two. The average parent shares 1,500 images of their children before their fifth birthday. With image recognition algorithms becoming increasingly advanced, even these images will soon be sold for a profit.

A lack of public awareness

This is worsened by a lack of awareness. 46% of UK adults don’t know how much personal information is available on them. For those that wish to know, many services have sprung up to help. Deseat Me is an (ironically) online service that cleans up someone’s online presence and finds profiles that they’ve forgotten about. 

New powers under GDPR

There is also the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which places data ownership squarely in the hands of the individual. Under GDPR, consumers can request records of their data from companies to understand what personal information is held. They can withdraw consent and request erasure. Whereas data ownership was once a grey area that tech companies could navigate with ambiguity. Now, the situation is much clearer – and geared towards protecting the public.

When GDPR first came into force, 42% of UK consumers planned to exercise their rights under the Regulation within a year of enforcement. So far, 55% have done so. 

As for data uploaded on minors, within the EU any personal data that was provided by parents can be deleted when a child reaches adulthood and requests it. 

Data breaches adding to uncertainty

Data breaches have also shaken consumer trust in data. HaveIBeenPwned is a tool that tells consumers if their account information has been involved in a data breach. This allows them to delete the compromised account and change other account information if needed.

Not user-friendly

As for search results, the largest search engine, Google, makes it a tough task to be removed from its service. Notably, it has come under criticism for its handling of revenge pornography victims whose intimate images are shared online. Its current process requires a victim to further share their images with Google’s team to validate their removal request.

For other search removals, the process is just as uncertain. After submitting a removal form, Google reserves the right to decline a request if it isn’t in the interest of the general public. For instance, in financial scams, malpractice and criminal conviction cases. Time will tell if the new, privacy-savvy public will continue to accept these processes.

Other recommendations for deleting your online presence are more time-intensive and in need of review. Consumers who wish to have zero online footprint will find it an almost impossible task. They’d have to delete every shopping account, remove themselves from social media, leave web service accounts and deactivate all emails. 

Change is coming

There is still a way to go, therefore, before consumers can clean up their online presence in one click. But it’s likely to happen, because the public and legislators are working toward securing greater online rights for the individual. For technology companies, there is a delicate balance to strike. With ownership and control in the hands of consumers, it’s trusted organisations who will get ahead. The future will see mutual respect – for personal data and its ethical use.

Technology leaders hold tremendous power to shape the world in a positive way. Responsible use of technology will support society’s needs and ensure a sustainable future. However, thus far, the irresponsible and unethical use of technology has marred the industry.

Data breaches are a common scandal. In 2018, T-Mobile suffered a data hack that exposed two million customer details including encrypted passwords. British Airways was also hacked, with 380,000 payment details stolen. The scandal left panicked customers scrambling to contact their banks and credit card providers. Recently, hackers published the personal details of thousands of FBI agents and law enforcement officers. Making them and their families vulnerable to attack and potentially blowing their cover. Breaches are a worrying development, with new reports of attacks and leaks surfacing every few weeks.

Scandals that damage trust

Then there is the unethical use of data. Highlighted in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which resulted in a deep public distrust of data use. Only a fifth of the UK public trust organisations to store and use their data. This has been further weakened by Facebook continuing to share data with third parties without explicit consumer knowledge or consent. Sharing arrangements with 150 organisations were revealed after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. These included retailers, other tech companies, media organisations, publishers and automotive manufacturers.

Time to rebuild the relationship

To rebuild trust in data and the wider tech sector, tech leaders must do more to address consumer concerns. They also have to go a step further, in ensuring sustainable business practices and actively solving society’s most critical issues. 76% of the public want to see CEOs actively driving change in society, instead of waiting for governments to impose it.

Positive uses are overshadowed

Overshadowed by scandal are many positive uses of technology. AI is being used in medical research to detect breast cancer with 99% accuracy, for example. It has potential applications in the circular economy, with AI designing out food waste in supply chains. The estimated value creation from this is estimated at US$127 billion a year by 2030.

Communicating such benefits and positive advances would do a great deal in regaining public trust in the sector.

Increased regulation

Concerns around the impact of technology are translating as increased scrutiny and regulation. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was introduced to give individuals greater power and ownership of their personal data. Likewise, governments are debating regulations for the sharing economy, gig workers, the policing of online content and breaking up big tech. All are products of technology, with resulting pros and cons. 

Hard to predict tech’s impact

Indeed, few tech leaders could have foreseen the long-term implications of Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and Twitter when first founded. We couldn’t have predicted the influence that Facebook would’ve had on the U.S. elections or Brexit voting. Nor could we of envisioned the widespread disruption to the travel and transport industry caused by Uber and Airbnb.

With more advanced developments on the horizon, such as deep learning and autonomous vehicles, the onus is on tech companies to make changes that have a net-positive impact on society. The time is now for technology leaders to ask reflective questions on the use and role of technology. To learn from the unintended outcomes of unhampered technology development and use.

Place humanity at the centre

It is time for humans to be placed squarely in the centre of all tech developments. Not to create newer and more advanced technology to prove that we can. But to develop technology that builds a better world for generations to come.

Oversight and accountability

To achieve this, we need oversight and accountability. This is something that governments are trying to implement. However, they lack the detailed understanding and insight of those within the industry. Therefore, it falls on tech leaders to regulate and hold each other accountable.

Technology should showcase best practice. It must be a symbol of purpose and positive societal progress. In doing so, profits will soon follow. To do the opposite will be to forever undermine the power of technology. We’re in the industry to change the world. Make sure it’s for the greater good.