Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal has unleashed a new wave of interest in the use of data collected through social media.
Judging by the number of people who continue to use Facebook, I don't think the concern is about data being collected (although some of the practices that Facebook has allowed are highly questionable), but more about how this data was used. It's one thing to find yourself targeted with silly ads based on what you've liked or posted online; it's another when this data is used to influence an election.
But it's not just through social-media platforms like Facebook that we're giving away data. Most of us are doing it every day through loyalty schemes or simple acts like using a credit card at the supermarket. There's a whole range of companies that know what I eat and drink, where I fill up the car, where I go on holidays and how often I visit a doctor.
While this is a pretty scary prospect, it's also possible to imagine a world in which this rich data is used for good.
I recently lost my credit card, which meant I had to go through the tiresome process of updating all of the direct debits linked to the old card. This took three to four days, and by the time I'd finished, some payments against the old card had already been rejected, leaving me with late payment fees. If my bank was using my data for good, when I cancelled my old card it would have automatically sent me a list of regular payments and asked if I wanted to transfer them to the new card.
I also recently changed health insurers (leaving Bupa after its terrible policy changes). The process of choosing a new policy involved revisiting decisions I'd made a decade ago about what sort of cover I needed. Imagine if health insurers did this for us, prompting us to review cover as we age or as our patterns of claiming change – even if that meant suggesting a downgrade in cover.
This is similar to the line of thought that the royal commission into financial services has explored, when asking why banks failed to use data on customers' actual expenses when assessing their ability to repay a credit card or loan.
While banks have an obligation to do this under responsible lending laws, applying this thinking in other sectors would involve a fundamental shift – expecting companies to use data to prompt better decisions, even if it means less profit for them.
Smart businesses will see this coming and put their customers' interests first.
Alan Kirkland, CHOICE CEO