No matter where you go or how hard you try, data has become woven into the fabric of our lives. The chances are that, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, it will do so even more. Indeed, the device you’re reading this on has likely logged your details - when you accessed this page, how long you’ve been on it, even where you are right now. It’s a modern day miracle of sorts, yet fundamentally a force for good. It is important to remember that all of this is done in an attempt to drive services tailored to you, to help you find an open bank or suggest a book you might want to read. And therein lies the heart of the matter: in a world where 68% of people don’t trust companies to look after their data, just how will businesses continue to gather the information needed to satisfy the consumer?


How data is defined


So people want more personalized services, but are increasingly unwilling to give up the data required to fuel them. It’s something known as the 'personalisation paradox' and, at its core, boils down to one issue - people, quite rightly, want control of their own data.  As it is neither physically tangible or inherently valuable in its own right, data is hard to legally define as property, especially electronic data. To think of it one way, imagine you’ve gone walking on a private beach. The next day you come back to find a glass case over your footprint, next to it an artist charging visitors to see it. Who owns your footprint, the artist, the landowner, the shoe designer or yourself? As it transpires, all might have claims to own the installation, depending on just how the law is interpreted:


A relatively established theory is that data is created as an interaction between an individual and a data controller, normally a service. For example, if you utilise a maps service you do so under the condition that the location data generated is owned by the service, a clause normally hidden away in the fine-print. Should they breach consumer trust by selling this data for use in targeted advertising, the chances are they will lose market share, and thus there exists an inherent basis for maintaining a strong data protection policy. Or so the theory goes.


GDPR and what it means


Under the previous thinking your footprint would be the inherent property of the beach owner, an unwritten contract put in place when you accessed their land. However, while recent General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) don’t explicitly state who owns the data, many experts take it to mean that the subject of the data (you) should have the tools to determine how it is processed. Major changes include the right to ask companies to erase your data, the right to access all your data and directives stating that all terms and conditions must be given in an intelligible and easily accessible form - spelling the end for twenty pages of subclauses when signing up. With GDPR in place the beach owner would still have your footprint but should you ask them, they now have no choice but to quite literally wipe the slate clean.


Shifting to anonymous data


In the face of increasing data awareness, many companies are looking for the best ways of not only gathering high-quality information, but maintaining public trust at the same time. This has long been the standard in medical ethics, where practical concerns mean that patients are more often than not unable to access their own data. This is only possible due to the comprehensive anonymising of all the information collected by researchers. Likewise, if companies can anonymise the data they collect, it’s an indication that they’re looking to maximise their own services for their customers, not acting to simply exploit them. This helps to create the one thing that companies value above all else, trust.


Applying new methods in the workplace


The workplace is an ideal arena in which to see different approaches. Unsurprisingly, maximising productivity has long been the holy grail of both companies and workers themselves. It also comes as no surprise that companies can find themselves treading a tightrope when it comes to what the public find acceptable. A perfect illustration of this occurred in 2015 when Swedish firm Epicenter found themselves falling into a media frenzy, the result of an experimental initiative to implant employees with biochips - for use within its Stockholm offices.


It’s notable that the chipped employees were fully willing volunteers, with years of technical experience behind them. However, the issue was not one of consent, it was one of personal privacy. After all, in the eyes of the public, a device that allows a person access to a building is only one step away from one that gives an executive the power to watch from above; tracking just where employees go, how long they spend at their desks, even who they interact with. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before Orwellian comparisons were being drawn.


On the other side of the coin, systems such as Freespace only collect data regarding the property of a company, not those that use it. It is a subtle distinction but an extremely important one. Just because a company can collect personal data, it does not mean it has to, especially if it has no benefit to its end-user. Indeed, anonymised data is regarded as more powerful when it comes to dissecting large-scale patterns, allowing for normal behaviour to be observed over time, without the interference and issues connected with personal identification. Likewise, the nature of such data means that its only use is to feed decisions that ultimately aid the employees - a structural feature that safeguards it from potential misuse.  


At the end of the day, heading into the world of data privacy is, by its very nature, a journey into an ever-changing landscape of legal definitions, social attitudes and corporate interests. The shifting sands on which modern day businesses are built will likely change again, damaging the foundations of those that do not adapt to the times. In these conditions the greatest support a business can have is trust, between itself and its users. Freespace recognises this as a two-way street, keeping it’s data fully anonymous and with the employee at its heart. It has taken years of regulatory work but finally the balance is returning to the individual. Finally personal data can be just that - Personal.