The volume of big data is astounding. Each day, as the Internet economy hums along, billions of connected devices, people, and sensors record trillions of transactions and behaviors. More remarkable still is the value of big data. When gathered, analyzed, and connected, personal data have the potential to reveal insights or enable practices that can transform business and society, be it through more innovation, faster and better processes, or an engaged and empowered public. Whether this value will be fully realized, however, remains to be seen.
With these opportunities come risks, particularly to our privacy. Efforts to safeguard privacy tend to place a premium on the consent of the individual—think of all the “I agree” boxes you see online. It’s an important priority, given how much of our lives is now digitally transcribed. And the growth of personal data shows no signs of slowing. But the prevailing notice-and-consent approach is not working. It fails to give people any understanding of, or genuine control over, how their information will be used. It’s a binary choice—yes or no. It does little to build trust or engage the individual, and it thus threatens to constrict the flow of data.
While notice and consent may seem like the most prudent approach, it could end up taking a significant toll, mainly in the form of missed opportunities. To understand what’s at risk, consider just one example of the benefits that data sharing has unlocked in health care. By systematically collecting and sharing health outcomes data collected through a national heart-attack registry, Sweden was able to improve the quality of care at below-average hospitals by 40 percent. The public disclosure of aggregated, anonymous patient data drove a significant turnaround, saving not just costs but lives.
Our latest report on personal data—part of the World Economic Forum’s Rethinking Personal Data initiative—provides further case studies that illustrate the value of digital information. It also calls for a new approach to ensure the trusted flow of personal data. This approach focuses not on governing data but on governing the usage of data and recognizes the importance of engaging the individual.
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