A Better Way to Handle Data: ‘Privacy by Design’

In this series of commentaries on analytics-related TED Talks, we examine how insights from predictive analysis can solve real-world problems and how various experts are making that happen.

If you thought that diet ad that popped up on your social media feed when you were feeling at your worst was a coincidence—think again. In fact, your social network has been using insights from predictive analytics to track your behavior and target you at your most vulnerable moments. The ubiquitous nature of big data and the use of and business analytics to cultivate business intelligence is creating new ethical conundrums about how our personal data is gathered, analyzed and used. We have no idea that it’s happening—let alone have any control over it.

Is this the world that we can expect to live in from now on? One in which free access is gained to that which we hold most dear—our privacy? Marie Wallace says it doesn’t have to be so. In her TED Talk: Privacy By Design: Humanizing Analytics, this analytics strategist for IBM says that there’s a better way to work with data—through what she refers to as “privacy by design.” Wallace proposes a world in which companies are actually open and transparent with consumers about how they are collecting, analyzing and using data. It’s a significant component of her unique approach to social analytics, in which she puts a human face on what we’re doing with data. In such a framework, consumers are respected, and given the ability to make their own choices—rather than having decisions unknowingly forced on them.

Although a seemingly simple solution would be to “turn off the data tap,” in an interconnected world, data leakage between individuals is a common dynamic upon which companies can still capitalize. By association, the data that someone else shares can generate insights about you, which may be something that you wouldn’t want someone else to have, let alone use. As Wallace notes, “Data ownership is utterly meaningless. It’s who the insight refers to that counts.” She says she believes transparency is the key challenge that needs to be addressed in this “privacy spaghetti.” She says the consumer holds the keys to accountability for transparency from the companies they engage with.

Wallace describes the project she’s been working on within IBM over the last several years. She notes that the company has a ripe data environment with a unique challenge. IBM has to balance the needs of their network of engaged, active employees who are looking to maximize the benefits of being part of such an environment, and the needs of the management team who want to know what the data within is saying about their employees and business as a whole.

This is where Wallace describes turning the traditional approach to business analytics on its head. When she was asked to build a system that would analyze their enterprise social network, she decided to take a “privacy by design” approach, beginning with a defined philosophy that would guide all subsequent design decisions. It had three principles:

  1. Transparency, privacy, and personal autonomy would be the core principles driving development decisions.
  2. Simplicity and ease of use would be key.
  3. Personal empowerment would be the goal—with individual insights accessible to employees only, and only aggregated analyses available to management.

Wallace cites several positive outcomes from this approach:

  1. The use of simple principles led to trusting relationships.
  2. The use of openness and transparency led to new dialogue around the use of social and collaboration data—which also led to increased data sharing and further engagement with employees.
  3. Empowering employees regarding their own analytics demonstrated clear respect for them and built relationships.
  4. Corporate programs can now have access to new insights, but in a way that is respectful and sensitive to employee needs.

Wallace believes this culture of transparency could and should also work in the external socialsphere. If IBM employees can have such empowerment, she sees no reason why consumers should have any less—and that such an expectation should be part of the equation that drives consumer loyalty. In fact, in a recent post, “Big Data and the Future of Work,” she shares slides from a recent talk and discusses how she believes the use of social analytics will lay the foundation of the future of work: Fundamentally if we want to realize the potential of human networks to change how we work, then we need analytics to transform information into insight, otherwise we will be drowning in a sea of content and deafened by a cacophony of voices.”

While Wallace is clear about her approach to consumer data privacy, the ethical tension regarding this issue is clearly visible in the contrasting privacy policies of Google and Apple—at least according to concerns cited by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook. In a recent awards ceremony of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, he provided a somewhat blistering analysis of his Silicon Valley neighbors.

“I’m speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information,” Cook said. “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it. We think that’s wrong. And it’s not the kind of company Apple wants to be.”

Apparently not everyone within Apple agrees with such a policy, which is why its former iAd executive, Winston Crawford, recently left the company to join Drawbridge—a fairly new firm that helps marketers track user data across multiple devices.

According to a description by the Wall Street Journal: “Drawbridge’s technology works to identify users by applying machine-learning techniques to large amounts of data generated from devices…[Drawbridge] can detect when the same user logs onto the Web from a PC, tablet or smartphone, or purchases a product in a retail store, based on their browsing habits and other clues. Drawbridge then sells that information to marketers who want to show the same person ads on different devices and measure the ads’ effectiveness.”

Tim Cook and Marie Wallace seem to be operating on the same privacy wavelength, and it would be interesting to hear what he and Apple think about “privacy by design.” Since the two companies have already partnered up, it seems there may be some technology behemoths looking after the privacy needs of consumers after all.

Marie Wallace is currently an analytics strategist for IBM. She has been heavily involved in the research and development division building content, semantic and social analytics technologies—which created the foundation for such solutions as IBM Watson. Recently, she has been focusing on the analysis of people networks to deliver smarter, personalized and contextualized solutions for individuals and organizations. She is a globally recognized thought leader, with a popular blog, AllThingsAnalytics.com.