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It is time to educate consumers on the pros and cons of big data

Only 38 per cent of Europeans think that the collection of data could bring them and their families more security, whereas in the US 47 per cent are of that opinion – claim George Candon and Arne Koeppel

The emergence of big data is one of the most important developments of the past years. It is even being compared to the industrial revolution in terms of its paradigm-changing potential. The rapid advances in information technology have made it possible to process and analyse vast amounts of data. The potential benefits range from progress in science and technology, discovery of new drugs, increased safety, more targeted marketing and more accurate analysis to inform decision-making.

Many large companies such as Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP are developing new business models and services based on the processing of big data and cloud services. However, it seems that the general public is more alive to the risks rather than the benefits. Our recent study shows that the majority of people – 55 per cent in Europe and 53 per cent in the United States – are negative about big data.

A similar number of people are concerned about the amount of information that is collected about them. On both sides of the Atlantic, people feel they have no or little control about the type of personal information that is used by business or governments. Some 65 per cent in the US and 51 per cent in the European Union expressed this view.

Particular in the EU, most people do not feel that the use of big data will bring them benefits. Only 38 per cent of Europeans think that the collection of data could bring them and their families more security, whereas in the US 47 per cent were of that opinion. In terms of greater security for the general public, the numbers were only slightly higher with 43 per cent in the EU and 53 per cent in the US confident in the ability of data collection to deliver.

Even economic benefits are regarded as unlikely in Europe. For example, only 41 per cent of Europeans find it very or somewhat likely that the collection of data could result in access to lower prices and only 32 per cent could imagine that it could result in employment opportunities. Overall, Americans are far more optimistic. In the US, some 66 per cent of the public think that data collection could result in access to lower prices and 42 per cent think it could result in employment opportunities.

It seems that something similar is happening with big data as happened with genetically-modified organisms. In Europe in particular, people mainly see the risks and not the benefits of a new technology and therefore reject it. The deep level of mistrust in organisations handling such information confirms this. Corporations that are collecting and processing personal data especially encounter a high level of mistrust, which was certainly not alleviated by the recent revelations of the National Security Agency surveillance programme.

In the EU and the US, some 70 per cent of respondents do not trust social media sites to treat personal data responsibly. However, neither are governments particularly trusted. Only 45 per cent of Europeans trust their governments to handle data responsibly. In America, this number was only slightly higher – at 48 per cent.

However, the picture is not as straightforward as it might first seem. Americans seem to be more concerned about the risk of their personal information being used without their consent; be it information about financial activities, identifiable information such as social security numbers or personal health information. Europeans seem rather oblivious when it comes to use available protection mechanisms and make less use of them than do Americans. For instance, only 31 per cent of Europeans have bought software to protect personal information online and only 40 per cent have taken steps to tighten security settings on social media sites. In contrast, 57 per cent and 59 per cent of Americans respectively have done this.

So it should probably come as no surprise that while Americans are more aware of specific risks and do more to protect themselves than Europeans, they are then also altogether more positive about data collection and its potential benefits. This hints to the possible explanation that Americans better understand the risks and benefits of data collection and are better able to rationalise them. In Europe there seems to be more of a vague feeling of uneasiness, which again is a reminder of the mistrust of new technologies so common on the continent.

But there is no avoiding it. Data collection is already very much part of our lives and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, may become less opposed to data collection once they begin to reap some of the benefits and opportunities the technology can offer. However, fundamental in this process is the need to regain trust – something that has been undermined in Europe following the extensive spying scandal.

The data protection regulation that is likely to be adopted by the European Parliament in March 2014 is conceived to protect personal data, increase confidence in big data and help ensure the technology contributes to economic growth in a meaningful way. Certain measures proposed therein, such as making the processing of personal data subject to consent or stringent obligations to provide information, could result in a stronger feeling of control and trust on the part of the consumer.

Although, given that only 38 per cent of Europeans are aware that EU is working on a data regulatory framework, it is doubtful whether regulation will result in a more positive attitude overall towards big data; at least in the immediate future. In light of the NSA surveillance scandal, it is now more important than ever that people genuinely understand the benefits and risks of big data and information collection – something that regulation alone cannot deliver.

The European Parliament elections in May 2014 may provide an opportunity for more attention to be focused on activities at the supranational level to regulate around data protection – and thereby rebuild trust in big data. If the complex issue of data protection is not turned into an electioneering issue the next months could instead be used for a balanced and informed debate around data protection, the role of different organisations that handle personal information, the reasons for collecting data, the benefits that can arise from its collection and measures every user of the internet should take to protect their own personal information. This is an opportunity that must not be lost, given the potential benefits that could be gleaned from the responsible gathering and use of big data for European economies and consumers alike.

George Candon is senior director of FTI Consulting and Arne Koeppel is head of research at the same organisation

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