A world that seemed transparent and promising becomes murky and threatening if we lose trust in the way data is used, says Ellen Richey, Chief Enterprise Risk Officer at Visa.

It is common knowledge that the world is growing more interconnected. Every day, data is collected by billions of devices recording trillions of transactions, while advances in technology link networks and enable analytics that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Advanced analytics, in turn, have become an engine for the creation of value, both economic and social. New insights are being gleaned from previously unknowable connections between dispersed bits of information. This is the promise of “Big Data”, a tremendous force for good in the world.

Most consumers understand what is happening here. They know that value is changing hands when data about them is collected, and they willingly trade some privacy in exchange for the benefits. In the Visa system, for example, consumers are delighted when banks use analytical tools to identify attempted fraud on their payment cards. This involves close and potentially intrusive analysis of their shopping behaviour. But the intrusion is expected, and welcomed, by consumers because they support its purpose. Understanding the context, they feel a sense of transparency and control. With context, there is trust. And with trust, there is opportunity.

None of this is a given, however. If trust in the data environment is broken – as when data is stolen, lost, or misused – then data will cease to flow. A world that once seemed transparent and promising becomes murky and threatening, and the enormous potential of Big Data is lost.

Today, the state of public trust in the guardians of data is mixed. Highly publicized data thefts, debates about Internet information practices, and a complex regime of privacy notices all conspire to undermine confidence in the system.

Yet, the public’s willingness to share data is surprisingly resilient. We need to do more to ensure it stays that way. To develop the dialogue on “Rethinking Personal Data”, last year the Forum sought input from multiple stakeholders in five cities across the world, which was discussed at this year’s Annual Meeting.

I have three thoughts on steps that any of us can take right now:

  • First, we can develop the fact base that supports our own beneficial uses of data. If we can’t explain it, why should consumers accept it?
  • Second, we can promote sound data practices in our own industries. From security to transparency to respecting consumer expectations and offering choices, the basics are well known.
  • Third, we should strive to simplify – drastically – the way we communicate with consumers about their data use choices. Sadly, the current approach has become unmanageable. Alternatives are emerging, and we should support them.

There is no turning back the clock on our interconnected world, but we could jeopardize its benefits if we fail to invest in a trusted data environment.

Author: Ellen Richey, Chief Enterprise Risk Officer, Visa, USA; World Economic Forum Steering Board on Personal Data and participant in the Annual Meeting 2013 in Davos.

Image: Man using a mobile phone crosses a street in Tokyo REUTERS/Issei Kato