According to the World Economic Forum, personal data will continue to increase dramatically in both quantity and diversity, and has the potential to unlock significant economic and societal value for end users, private firms and public organisations alike. This statement by the Swiss organisation behind the prestigious annual Davos meeting summarises its stance on the issue of personal information as an asset. Let’s forget for a second the idea of data protection as a fundamental right and look at it as a tool to maximise the economic and societal value of data. Perhaps the big thinkers at the Forum are up to something.
Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum published a paper called “Personal Data: The emergence of a new asset class” which looked at the current personal data ecosystem and suggested a number of actions aimed at making the most of it. The Forum’s premise is that the full potential of data lies in creating equilibrium among the various stakeholders influencing the personal data ecosystem. In other words, a lack of balance between stakeholder interests – business, government and individuals – can destabilise the personal data ecosystem in a way that erodes rather than creates value. Therefore, the paper explains that to achieve this balance, positive steps are needed across five distinctive areas.
The first one is innovation around user-centricity and trust. The idea is that personal data should be shared in a way that allows all stakeholders to trust the integrity and safety of the data. According to the Forum, offering more transparency on how personal data is used and educating users on the benefits of trust will significantly strengthen trust among all stakeholders. In practical terms, the key action to achieve this is to integrate data protection principles into the development of new services and platforms through the concept of privacy by design.
The second area is not a new one for those involved in legal compliance – the divergence in regulatory frameworks and the establishment of global principles. Privacy-related laws differ significantly across jurisdictions with different cultural, political and historical contexts. This has a number of downsides including the increased costs associated with compliance. Therefore, although the Forum acknowledges that it is unrealistic to hope to develop globally accepted standards and frameworks while national and regional versions are still in significant flux, establishing an international dialog will allow for more rapid harmonisation.
This is linked to the third area – the need to strengthen the dialogue between regulators and the private sector. Whilst self-regulation in the area of personal information protection may not be the answer, it is important that regulatory authorities are made fully aware of the technological advances so that they can adopt 21st century digital policies. This is absolutely critical in the European Union at a time when the regulatory framework is under review.
The fourth area focuses on a technological aspect – the need for interoperability and open standards. The reason for this is simple. If the highest potential for economic and societal value creation lies in the aggregation of different personal data types, the implication is obvious: data should be portable. To enable the seamless sharing of personal data across organisational borders, the Forum lists the following technical requirements: common communication standards and system architectures, accepted personal data terms and definitions, and standard interface design specifications.
The final area highlights the dynamic nature of this issue. For the Forum, it is crucial that stakeholders continuously share knowledge. Interestingly, the key component in this knowledge sharing exercise will be a central gatekeeper within each organisation who actively contributes to the personal data dialog. That person’s competence would not only include privacy, but also encompass a business development and strategic perspective. And that is precisely the essence of the World Economic Forum’s thinking around personal data. Unlocking the value of personal data is about balancing privacy and economic development so that everyone, absolutely everyone, can win.
This article was first published in Data Protection Law & Policy in April 2011.