With the not-so-recent controversy surrounding Facebook’s privacy policies being violated by Cambridge Analytica (and others), the issue of consumer data and privacy has become a hot topic for countries around the world. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was able to reveal just how vulnerable user data is even on secured platforms such as Facebook. In order to begin combatting longstanding and future user data leaks, governments and businesses alike have begun creating applications, policies and regulations that can protect data. But with individuals across the world continuously losing trust in companies’ ability to protect their data, these regulations will do little to sway consumers from demanding more from companies for the right to their personal data.
The creation of the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR for short, put into effect by the European Union in May of this year, signaled a new era in data protection. GDPR aims to create a more defined regulatory environment under which businesses and organizations are expected to not only be more transparent with their customers with exactly what kind of data is being collected and how it is being used, but also protect this data from being leaked and inform consumers in the event of a breach. In this way, the European Union hopes to give EU citizens more control over their user data not only online, but also the data they provide to entities such as banks, retailers, and the government.
However, the creation of the GDPR has been met with issues from the get-go. For starters, the sudden dramatic increase in emails asking customers to opt-in to new privacy and consent policies has left many with opt-in fatigue, and the potential for new email scams to take advantage of this fatigue and begin phishing for user data is already on the rise. Similarly, while it is required for any companies that have operations within the EU to abide by the GDPR—including international companies—many foreign company websites, social media platforms and even phone applications have been made unavailable to EU residents due to their delayed ability to set up all necessary data protections and regulations as required by the GDPR. Along with fears that the GDPR will hurt small businesses and hinder the free market, these regulations have yet to instill confidence in consumers and businesses alike that user data can be protected in an effective way.
While it may be a while until regulatory structures like GDPR are able to effectively protect consumer data while allowing free markets to thrive, private companies such as Freckle IoT are beginning to develop strategies that could provide consumers with more control over their data sooner. With the creation of their app Killi, for example, Freckle IoT aims to make explicit the actual value of consumer data by paying consumers to share their data, location and insights about ads directly to companies like McDonald’s, GM and Staples. In this way consumers not only choose what pieces of personal data they are sharing with which specific companies, but are also incentivized to share this data as they are directly paid for this data by whichever participating companies they choose to share it with. It is in this way that consumers may be able to begin understanding the true value of their data while gaining control over it in a more personal way.
However, while digitally advanced regions such as the United States and the European Union continue to struggle with balancing consumer privacy rights with the needs of companies to be able to leverage consumer data, many digitally advancing nations in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia are facing an entirely different set of problems in regards to user data and privacy. First, while privacy concerns are rising in both digitally advanced and advancing areas, the less digitally advanced countries tend to be more trusting towards digital media and how their personal data is handled online. Because of this trust, a recent Asia-focused survey found that people in digitally developing countries were often more willing to give out personal data in exchange for using online services. In fact, the study found that 94 percent of Chinese consumers would agree to let businesses reuse and share their personal data—whereas only 60% of those surveyed in New Zealand, for example, said the same.
Conversely, while digitally developing countries tend to trust online companies with their user data more, these countries also tend to have less trustworthy digital environments due to underdeveloped infrastructure and rougher security protections. Perhaps most concerning of all, while users in both digitally developed and developing countries cite social media as a platform from which they consume news, consumers from digitally developing countries tendency to trust the Internet at face value has made them particularly susceptible to the spread of fake news, with a recent lynching in India due to rumors spread on popular messaging application WhatsApp pointing to the potentially devastating real world implications of putting too much trust in the Internet. With higher trust in online companies’ ability to protect consumer data, lower protections against phishing and leaks and a relative naivete in regards to what constitutes real and fake news, big data has led to inequality between digitally developed and developing nations. Until digitally developing nations enact policies and protections similar to how the digitally developed world is currently tackling privacy concerns, this inequality gap will continue to widen.
While the Internet has revolutionized nearly every facet of life for nations around the world, the issue of consumer data and privacy will continue to push the private sector and governments to create solutions that benefit both consumers and companies in years to come—and as the digitally developing world catches up to the more digitally developed nations, this issue will not only continue to hinder individual countries, but the world as a whole.
About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.