Strengthening trust in the use of personal data has become a priority for policy-makers and business leaders. A recent survey by the telecoms operator Orange shows that an overwhelming 78% of consumers think that it is hard to trust companies with personal data, and that service providers hold too much information about them. An even higher number (82%) feel that they have no power to influence how data is used. Similarly, a new study released by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute found that over 67% of individuals feel that organizations, both public and private sector, ask for too much personal information.

Trust matters. Ultimately, the personal data economy hinges on people having enough trust to participate, and data governance should reflect this. We have heard business leaders say many times that “trust is the foundation of our business”. The challenge for organizations lies in strengthening trust while maintaining the flexibility to use personal data in ways that create economic and social value.

Fortunately, respecting privacy does not have to mean limiting opportunities for innovation and economic value. A new report from the World Economic Forum outlines the central challenges to strengthening trust, and presents a set of steps that can be taken in both the short and long term.

Provide meaningful transparency: Rather than focusing on disclosure and overwhelming individuals with excessive and often incomprehensible details, organizations can strengthen trust by engaging with people in a meaningful way that both provides them with insight into how personal data will be used and allows them to express preferences for that use. Doing so will require a simple language of data terms that users understand and that can be used across industries and regions, as well as user interfaces that provide a measure of individual control.

Work has already started on providing people with enhanced control.  For example, Mozilla’s new Firefox operating system incorporates a principle of least permissions. Under this approach, applications are granted a minimal level of permission for collecting and using personal data, unless an individual specifically grants more permissions.

Strengthen accountability: Without doubt, accountability is key to trust. Current approaches based on notice-and-consent models have the unfortunate consequence of shifting the majority of risks and responsibilities onto individuals. Most people are familiar with these agreements – clicking “I agree” when installing a new app, for instance – and they have become increasingly lengthy as new data uses have been developed. For example, the iTunes privacy agreement is longer than Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

By linking accountability to the impact data use has on individuals, responsibilities can be more equitably distributed throughout the value chain. In order to implement this approach, a greater understanding is needed of the impact and risks, as seen through the eyes of individuals, of different data uses.

Empower individuals: The growing volume of information generated by new technologies, and often analysed at levels far removed from the original point of collection, makes it difficult for individuals to understand where they fit in the personal data economy. Trust cannot be strengthened when individuals are kept in the dark and at a distance. New approaches can correct this by empowering individuals and basing data governance on their interests.

The world of personal data is both complex and constantly changing. While some of the required technological and legal frameworks will take time to develop, organizations can act now to develop common and straightforward ways to communicate with individuals, as well as reorienting risk control procedures around user needs. Personal data is a valuable asset that has been used to create significant social and economic value; taking reasonable steps to strengthen trust can help ensure that this continues.

Author: Naveen Menon, Partner and APAC Head, Communications, Media, and Technology Practice, A.T. Kearney

Image: An internet cable is seen at a server room in this picture illustration taken in Warsaw January 24, 2012. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel