Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Our (bad) attitude to data is all wrong



Data is something we all take for granted but when you think about it, what is data really? In terms of our old friend the data protection act it would be best described as information. The sort of stuff that if someone else gets hold of it they can do something with.

Information, as we are all taught, is power.

In the last week or so we have run the full gamut of emotions with data. We have had the dear old Daily Mail screaming from the rooftops about personal data being available for sale, allegedly without the permission of the people concerned. If you believe their rather wild claims millions of people will now be mercilessly stripped of their pensions by blaggards from the data industry who all have villas in Florida and drive expensive sports cars.

Undoubtedly there are some sharp operators out there. But that is true of almost any industry or sector. However the thing that struck me throughout the furore was that no one really cares about their data, so why are the Daily Mail getting so uptight?

Quite apart from the small rather inconvenient fact that quite a lot of the data they were whining about was probably obtained perfectly legally, the people they are trying to protect throw their personal information around with such gay abandon that it is a surprise anyone has a pension left.

Social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn are rife with stupidity. People happily give access to their information to all and sundry and are then surprised when someone nicks it, or spam’s it. And people throw away old computers and phones without wiping the data. It’s like writing your bank details on a piece of paper and putting it in the bin, rather than shredding it.

Of course there is a problem here. Most people are not totally scammed. You hear about the odd identity theft or black credit rating caused by data theft, but most people get away with being really quite dim.

And here we are back at one of my pet themes...education. Technology has outstripped education to an extent. When I was a teenager we had some practical lessons...how to write a cheque, how to boil an egg, iron a shirt, sew on a button and make phone calls. And yes we got to look at pictures of the odd male reproductive organ in sex education classes too! Nowadays kids would not know what a cheque was, and have probably seen more naked bodies on social media than I have had hot dinners.

But we should be teaching them how to be safe on these things, and not just safe from sexual predators (although that is obviously important). Their data is precious because it is information. If they learn not to release it to strangers without cause, or without knowing what will be done with it, we can eradicate all these problems. And if they learn that the hardware holds a multitude of sins waiting to bite them in the bum too, they will learn to deal with that.

Businesses suck up information, largely for no apparent reason. They do not use most of it. Ever. If you are asked a personal question that has no relevance to what you are doing, refuse to answer. It will stop it ending up as a selection criteria on some database somewhere.

Data is mostly unintelligible. Most of the crazy predictive things analysts say they can do with data do not work very well. They work in general terms, and in that sense, from a marketing point of view help identify a category of targets with a theoretical propensity to do ‘X’. Then a tele-sales exec hits the number and asks you about PPI. That is the level of sophistication we are talking about here. It is nothing sinister. Data in itself, the sort we put down on forms and the sort that ends up on those evil databases, is not really going to do us much harm.

So, actually, if you are still with my train of thought, the disposal of your old equipment without dealing with the data is the most stupid thing of all. Because this is not just the data, this is the whole shebang...your account numbers, your passwords, your photo of that girl on holiday doing that physically almost impossible thing with the banana and the sun lounger. And the Daily Mail is not getting all excited about computer recycling are they?

So it’s just me then!