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LONDON, United Kingdom — Another excellent NetForum discussion took place at Bloomberg’s Finsbury Square offices, this time around the idea of Privacy, as it affects us all and in particular as it relates to technology companies.

Consumers still don’t get that big data is here …

The subject matter is confusing for the experts, and baffling for consumers. The outcry when people realised that their tweets had not in fact disappeared but were stored (and mined for data) is indicative of a lack of understanding not much advanced since the Watergate tapes of President Nixon. This confusion is a real problem for companies as it requires multiple levels of response to be calibrated: consumer, customer, investor and government, to name the most obvious. The group observed that the concept of privacy exists at two levels: abstract views on privacy as a good thing, and personal decisions taken in the moment (yes I accept those iTunes terms and conditions, and freely give up information in return for an app that pleases me).

… and it’s only the beginning.

Churchill’s quote that we are merely at the end of the beginning is apt. Although financial services companies have had vast quantities of data on their customers since the 80s, only now has big data percolated through the other tech ecosystems. With data and functionality on the cloud, the rise of SaaS models (E.g. Nutmeg holds your investments online), privacy is subject to numerous jurisdictions, some of which are at almost 180 degrees to each other (e.g. Germany – and more broadly the EU – and the US). Add to the mix HIPAA and other industry regulation, and it’s no wonder that the startups in the field are asking for forgiveness, rather than permission. The rise of the CPO – Chief Privacy Officer was taken as a clear signal that this is a subject that needs careful attention, especially for those with deep pockets, when blame is being apportioned. And it was further noted that, with trillions of operations happening on data every day, the data protection laws must be the world’s most broken regulations out there.

An opportunity for consumers and others to make money?

An interesting strand of the discussion touched on the opportunity to monetize data being used by companies. Can consumers be paid for their info? In general it was thought not, as consumers aren’t organized enough, or aware enough, of the opportunity (despite some new EU regulations that will hit around 2016/17 on consumer ownership of the data about them residing in companies’ databases – the room collectively shuddered to think of the cost of supporting these requirements). Payment in kind (points, rewards and special offers for example) might however be the coin with which consumers are enticed to part with their data.

Caveat Government

An especially lively segment covered the role of government and regulation. While one faction argued that over-regulation would kill the golden goose that is the big data (or ‘data exhaust’) industry, primarily by being years behind the tech and the opportunity, others equally forcefully argued that governments are obliged to intervene given their mandate for social equality and protection.

No Short-Term Answer

The discussion concluded with some sobering thoughts about the size and shape of the challenge. 50 years from now, we might be sitting around discussing these self same issues, as the problem itself seems so intractable. There was some hope in that there do exist bodies in both the government and private spheres that have been working on, but as a whole the group acknowledged that there’s still quite a way to go.

The next NetForum discussion, on Cyber Security, will be held at Field Fisher’s offices on Wednesday April 29th, 2015. An invitation will go out closer to the time.

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