Recent news about social media platforms, leaky privacy and opaque business models shows attitudes towards data are changing around the world. Our research and products address some of these issues, with plenty of opportunities for Australia to lead the way in finding a better balance between privacy and utility.

As you’re reading these words, it’s very likely that you’ve just added to the most valuable resource of this century. By simply clicking through to this article, you’ve created a valuable digital signal about your behaviour. For each of us, our digital and physical behaviour is converted into a set of representative information linked to our identity. These aggregated representations of our actions, ‘data’, have been described as the 21st century’s ‘new oil’ – a rich well of insight that is also marketable. Alongside the utility of data comes the need to respect the privacy of the people who are being measured, and whose information is being utilised.

Understanding, pre-empting and ultimately resolving the issues that exist around the lifecycle of data, from the people who create it, the companies that use it and the government that warehouse it, is the work of Data61’s researchers and experts. These issues are global in nature, and the potential for Australia to lead in enabling the utility of data whilst preserving privacy is significant.

Platforms, data and industries undergoing massive change

For several years, Facebook, easily the world’s largest vertically integrated social platform, let third party applications acquire data from users, and user’s friends – a setting exploited by a large number of organisations, including the now-infamous political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica. The backlash has been swift, with millions of furious users, Facebook in damage control mode and a data-driven marketing industry struggling with social licence.

Bar chart showing how much, if at all, the government should regulate how companies use your personal information.

A Reuters poll taken in the days after the scandal broke found that nearly half of US respondents want increased government regulation of how companies use personal information, and 63 per cent of respondents want less targeted advertising in the future.

Though the specifics of this scandal have dominated technology news for weeks, it’s the first chapter of what will be a deep and sustained focus on how data is owned, managed and stored across the entire world.

Recent data sharing frameworks and impending open banking principles could lead to similar issues if the right standards and processes are not in place. In particular, data that has been ‘de-identified’ (altered to remove personal information) can be ‘re-identified’ by third parties – a major concern for those whose business is big data analytics.

It’s more important than ever for companies to ensure that data sharing is done right. One pathway for this is using mathematical proof as the core of a technology that preserves the privacy of the people who comprise that data set. Beyond banking, this is critically important to emerging industries like precision health and food provenance, which are underpinned by data from different entities – from which the combined insights can create improved products and services.

Australia’s opportunity

There is an opportunity for Australia to seize on a global shift towards new models of platforms as de-centralised community owned resources, data that is distributed rather than centralised, and privacy paradigms that, by default, value those generating data, rather than those purchasing it.

New models around data storage are emerging across the world. The European Union’s DECODE project explores the concept of widespread open data commons – an effort to study and analyse a model of data management that hands data stewardship to citizens. Amsterdam and Barcelona are the pilot cities; with a focus on the use of distributed ledger technologies, Internet of Things and the sharing economy. This is a clever new way of thinking about empowering citizens to manage a resource that is clearly too often mis-managed. As DECODE writes ,”A data commons is a shared resource…data can be seen as an economic public good alongside more traditional examples such as street lights or clean air. It enables everyone to contribute, access and use the data in the data commons”.

CSIRO Data61 has several contributions towards addressing the most pressing issues around the new resource of data. These include N1 Analytics, designed to share insights from data without making raw data available to third parties. Our privacy preserving data transformation processes ensure the ‘shape’ of data remains the same while polluting individual information, enabling analysis without compromising the privacy of the people who comprise the data. We also engage in wide variety of research examining data privacy issues.

Organisations that adopt a mindset of growth, equally balanced by ethics and proven privacy protocols that protect the customer or citizen, will seize on the challenges of managing the 21st century’s most valuable resource, and they will contribute to positioning Australia as a global player in finding a peaceful equilibrium between those who utilise data, and those who create it.