Right now, businesses are surfing a tidal wave of 'big data' – huge quantities of digital information generated by an ever-growing online population. This means that even commonplace online activities such as reading a newspaper, listening to music or chatting to friends, leave behind a trail of digital 'breadcrumbs' that can be swept up by businesses. Add to this the data generated through regular transactions with banks, retailers, travel agents, mobile phone operators and myriad other companies, and it should come as no surprise that many aspects of our lives can now be routinely mapped out through data.
However, the Deloitte UK 2013 Data Nation survey – an annual survey of the UK public's attitudes towards data collection and use – shows that ten per cent fewer people than in 2012 say they are fully aware that organisations collect data about them and their activities. How can levels of awareness have fallen so significantly in our increasingly digital society?
Companies are collecting more data and combining increasing varieties of information, revealing relationships that are extraordinarily valuable to businesses. However, people's level of awareness is not keeping up with the new ways that data is collected and used. The scale of data collection or the relationships that can be determined from it are not always obvious or adequately explained to the people who feature in the data.
For example, carrying a smartphone everywhere can reveal information not only about where you are but where your friends are, too, which can be used to deliver relevant location-sensitive offers. What we write on social media can reveal information about our attitudes and opinions, political allegiances, age, gender, ethnic origin and level of education that businesses can use to create more accurate profiles and customer segments. Even our weekly shopping trip can expose personal information that triggers targeted marketing offers – even if we'd rather have kept the personal information private.
Deloitte's Data Nation survey reveals that these changing levels of awareness are accompanied by low levels of public confidence. Only nine per cent of people in Britain expressed confidence across all five scenarios where businesses collect, handle and share their data. Legislation such as the Data Protection Act or the amended Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations – also known as the 'cookie law' – requires businesses to help individuals understand what data is collected and how it is used. But the growth in data volumes and varieties, and the increasing sophistication of analytical techniques used by companies, make it difficult for regulation alone to preserve privacy.