Automotive Blog

Whose data is it anyway?

Data _security

(Image: MIT, Information systems and technology group)

In 1995, Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford. In 2013, Google generated $57.8 Bn in revenue. Google is the very essence of an early 21st century data business, creating new business value for itself and others, through harvesting patterns of behaviour, using adwords and insights from search engines and Android platforms to enhance targeted communication and develop new products and services. But many are uncomfortable with the commoditisation of personal data. An old adage commonly referred to in IT circles is “If you're not paying for it, then you are the product”.

Some businesses are now actually trying to make the virtue of not using customer data. For example, Tim Cook of Apple has recently said that “Our business is not based on having information about you. You’re not our product. ... if they’re making money mainly by collecting gobs of personal data, I think you have a right to be worried” (  Of course, Apple is not exactly an impartial party in this debate, but the comments do highlight the trade-off implicit for the individual customer in sharing valuable data in return for free or discounted services. Furthermore, concerns over privacy, and access to data from interested commercial parties, are entwined with questions as to who is the most trusted, reliable and most capable manager of data. Recent stories over the security of information held in cloud-based services have been a reminder of how much data is networked and outside the direct control of the data creator or owner. Such stories also highlight how little most consumers understand with regard to how much data is shared all the time by users of smartphones and the various other forms of personal computers. As services such as personal finance and transactions management are increasingly disrupted by new data driven business models, security for both the business and individual consumer become more critical. Customers will increasingly want to know what their personal and usage data is being used for, who can actually see it, how to know the information is safe, and how to obtain a copy or audit of all data that is held and shared. The latter point is probably the most contentious, which raises the bigger question as to ‘whose data is it anyway?’. This same debate is now happening in the automotive space, as cars become the next ideal opportunity for data harvesting. It is not a completely new problem – for example, manufacturers’ approved used car programmes already require franchised dealers to wipe the customer details from the used car before the car can be sold to another customer, including, for example, the locations stored in an on-board sat-nav. Furthermore, who owns customer data has, for many years, been an area of friction between carmakers and the franchised network partners, itself a largely unresolved issue reflected in the variety and complexity of dealer and manufacturer business management systems. Data is a huge opportunity for the sector, but as the use of data becomes more sophisticated, all businesses engaged with gathering, sharing and using big data should be returning again to the question of how data is managed, protected and created within their processes and systems, and traded and shared with their wider array of business partners, and the smaller businesses such as small family owned dealer groups may be less capable of addressing the issues raised. And more fundamentally, suppliers, dealers and OEM divisions developing big data strategies also need to consider a long term plan to establish fair use ownership rights for the customer, so the customer is clear as to how free they will be to trade their own useful, private and tradable data, such as, for example, driving patterns. Businesses that keep the customer in the dark about how their data is used or restrict what customers can do with their personal data, including motoring data, may find that they are storing up a headache for the future if customers decide that the data they have implicitly paid for is theirs to do with what they want. Just because the data can be gathered without an obvious payment doesn’t mean the customer sees it as not being their data. Data sharing is beneficial and inexpensive, but that situation has arisen because data is also valuable. As attributed to Stewart Brand in 1984, “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away”.

Written by Ben Waller

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