Do we value our personal data?

Do we value our personal data?

In the second part of our ‘Making the IoT Trustworthy’ theme, psychologist Anya Skatova explores the value that we place on our personal data. Do we truly understand the benefits and the risks of sharing our data?

We all value our privacy, but we may value it in different ways. Consider a school friend who regularly posts details about their life on Facebook, or a work colleague who refuses to have a Facebook account because they worry about who can see what they post. These everyday decisions reveal attitudes about how much these people value keeping their personal data (and, to certain extent, their life) private.

In a world of digitized personal data the issue of ‘privacy’ is not easy to define. As an individual, it is also not easy to figure out which decisions to make in order to share or not share your personal data in a way which is aligned with your subjective, personal perception of privacy for yourself and your loved ones.

It is getting harder to be truly ‘private’ as personal data is collected by companies on so many aspects of our lives. If we wish to engage with modern, “smart” world, we are allowing information to be collected about all of us, all the time. This information – whether people are aware about it or not – is held by private and public companies. For example, if you use a reward card for a supermarket, every purchase you make is recorded, and a pattern may be built up of your shopping habits, which can be compared against other customers.

Since the data collected via various devices reflects people’s everyday behaviours, an individual deciding to share their personal data is also sharing personal information about their everyday habits, their routines and of those they interact with. Further, this information can be also traded for money between various stakeholders.

In the context of Internet of Things devices or smart technology – whether it is autonomous vehicles or a smart home – we know that this data is a very valuable cornerstone in companies’ business models. In fact, being able to share and link users’ personal data is necessary for the provision of Internet of Things services.

With individuals’ willingness to share their personal data being the centre of Internet of Things and all sorts of data sources being recorded about individuals, little is understood about the value individuals place on keeping their data private. Recent investigations highlight the “privacy paradox”, which refers to the tension between incentives to share everything we do, on the one hand, and the need to maintain privacy, on the other. When individuals release data about themselves it can be used for their benefit but also to their detriment. To make informed decisions, individuals need to understand the value of their data and the risks they are accepting by sharing it.

The way people value their data could impact upon their willingness to share specific kinds of data. For example, people might put a high value on protecting their mobile phone GPS or banking data, but not care as much about retail loyalty cards shopping data or fitness tracking data. This preference is partly due to how much people understand what can be inferred from their data and how this data can be used in the future. Sharing your GPS location seems like sharing something private, because it is easy to use this information to find out where somebody lives or works. Sharing shopping loyalty cards for most seem innocuous and not valuable. However, data from loyalty cards can reveal all sorts of habits, including what you like to drink or eat, as well as your health issues (e.g., people with long term chronic pain may consistently buy items related to pain reduction or alleviation) and life changing events (e.g., pregnancy or moving house). In some cases, this information can be used to benefit society, for example to contribute to health research on lifestyle predictors of various illnesses.

The Value of Personal Data project at PETRAS studies what value people put on their personal data records (energy readings, mobile phone bills, banking transactions, etc.), and to explore how and why people make the decision to share their personal data. In the forthcoming survey we will examine whether people understand how their data is shared, what ‘data sharing’ even means, whether they assign value to their data, and whether people are consistent in sharing or keeping secure different types of data. We also study different risks and benefits of sharing data, as well as what is the public perception of those.

Ultimately, we want to find out whether consumers understand the risks and the benefit trade-offs that they are required to make when sharing their personal data. This will allow public and private businesses to build systems that share data in privacy preserving and secure way which acceptable to individuals and in agreement with their own personal “privacy settings”. The information about how people value different types of personal data can produce recommendations to policy makers and help create a better environment that can support people in making informed decisions for sharing their personal data.

Anya Skatova is a psychologist working between the School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol and Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick. She obtained her BSc at Moscow State University, MSc at the University of Oxford and Phd at the University of Nottingham, all in psychology. Anya has a research interest in psychology of personal data as well as public attitudes to data sharing. She studies what people understand about barriers and risks of data sharing, as well as how we can create an environment enabling conscious and informed choice whether to share personal data. 

Anya Skatova
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