It is no secret that companies of the digital age have benefitted from Big Data. Tracking consumer data has allowed for more effective marketing campaigns, prevention of risk and fraud, personalized user experiences, and more. You could say utilizing Big Data has become a requirement to compete.

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent hearing before the United States House of Representatives intensified the focus on consumer data protection in the U.S. This hearing dealt with breakdowns in the handling of Facebook’s unprecedented trove of consumer data, but will have larger implications. Companies are soon to be confronted with policies that will heavily regulate the practices around using Big Data. The hearing highlighted that self-regulation has been an issue for Facebook, which is what most tech companies push for because it would be easier to manage than a comprehensive federal regulation. In her TED Talk, Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci said companies like Facebook encourage deep surveillance on all of us because the machine learning algorithms only work when there is an enormous amount of data.

This challenge is communicated in this quote from Zuckerberg’s testimony:

“It’s not enough to just connect people, we have to make sure those connections are positive. It’s not enough to just give people a voice, we have to make sure people aren’t using it to hurt people or spread misinformation. It’s not enough to give people control of their information, we have to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too. Across the board, we have a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure those tools are used for good.”

It is possible that we are looking at a future in which the protection of digital identity will hold greater value than the relevance of a pop-up advertisement or the personalization of a user’s experience. Why? Not protecting an individual’s digital identity could lead to a lot of hardship. It could mean difficulty in accessing jobs, education, financial well-being, travel, healthcare, etc. There is an opportunity here for companies to explore how to use data in more sustainable and responsible ways while gaining the trust of consumers from every generation.

Beginning May 25, 2018, companies who collect and process the data of European citizens will need to comply with a new data protection regulation. It is very likely that the U.S. will follow with similar requirements. In fact, several U.S. companies are proactively taking action AND letting their customers know what they are doing to protect them to communicate a level of transparency. What is equally important is the responsibility we take as individuals with personal data that invariably is on the internet. Many are already taking matters of privacy, security, and accuracy into their own hands. While meeting with an executive at a global bank recently, I remarked that it was challenging to find information about her online. She replied that she had hired a company to clean the internet of references to her – a type of erasure – because so much of the info was wrong or out of context. So, she elected to have less information out there.

The solution to using Big Data without infringing on the privacy of consumers will not be simple. However, as we work inside of companies using data, we can change the way our companies approach and utilize consumer data. The sooner we realize the responsibility and integrity needed at both a corporate and individual level when working with copious amounts of data, the sooner we will be able to prepare ourselves for the future.

Co-authored, edited and prepared with Ashlyn Vogelsang.

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