BCS Survey shows people want more control over their data
BCS Survey shows people want more control over their data

The British Computer Society (BCS) has called for people to have more control over their personal data.

The call comes after the BCS published the findings of an online survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the society. That research showed that while 89% of people thought they should have more control over their data, the majority were NOT willing to pay for a service that could keep their data secure.

These two facts highlight the problem for companies that collect data as part of their business model. On one hand the more data they collect the more value they can get out of it. On the other, if they offer a premium service that will provide security and control, users are unwilling to pay for it. The result is likely to be companies continuing to collect data that all too often is given willingly by users who cannot be bothered to read the terms and conditions of using the app or site.

BCS Personal Data Challenge

David Evans, Director of Policy at BCS
David Evans, Director of Policy at BCS

This study comes as the BCS begins to consult on the future of personal data. At the Personal Information Economy 2015: Growth Through Trust conference held today it looked at the challenges that lie ahead for individuals, companies and even governments. In a statement from David Evans, Director of Policy at BCS he explained: “Every day we are presented with the stark contrast between how personal data affects us and what we want, both as individuals and organisations. We’ve become used to it, but when we reflect on it, things simply aren’t right.

“Terms and conditions mean we’re given an ultimatum when we want a conversation. Vulnerable people can be hounded even by organisations they should have a positive relationship with.  It feels that we can’t trust big household names to look after or use our data as we’d want them to. Yet organisations are also carrying risks and frustrated by constraints, and that isn’t good for business. Personal data is not working for anyone; we need to come together and fix it.”

The BCS is encouraging people to download and complete the full challenge document. It wants as many people as possible to comment on the challenge principles in order to help it shape its own approach and response to government policies.

At the moment the BCS wants to see harmonisation of both legal and technical systems around personal data. The problem is that this is not just a challenge for the UK but a global problem and trying to harmonise systems at that level is likely to be like tilting at windmills. Even where there appears to be common cause between countries, such as the UK and US, there is a considerable gulf between the two when it comes to personal data protection.

One of the biggest problems is legislative, with the US courts rarely upholding the same principles to protection of personal data as the UK and EU. This problem is already creating problems in finding a solution to the recent Safe Harbor ruling from the European Court of Justice. It will be interesting to see how the BCS eventually tries to marry up legal statutes in order to get a solution.

In terms of technical controls there are a lot of different ways of controlling how much personal data is shared. The problem is getting businesses to use them. For example, Facebook steadfastly refuses to limit the amount of personal data that app developers can access when users sign up to an app. If a user disagrees with the amount of data the app wants, most of which is completely unconnected to the app itself, they have little choice but to not use the app.

Without the buy in of social media companies who at a stroke could have a significant impact on reducing personal data spread, it will be hard if not impossible to reduce the way data is taken. The problem for the social media companies is that they have little to offer without the apps that run on their platforms. For many of the app developers they are struggling to monetise their apps and instead see data as the new currency. The more they get the more they can sell or trade with other companies.

Key findings from the survey

The BCS survey was refreshingly simple which is why it probably got a high response rate. When asked about how happy they were with the data policies and practices of companies just over a quarter were happy with the way they traded their data for services and how the data was handled. Over 64% however felt there was nothing they could do about it. It appears that not using the app or service is not an option for many people.

When it came to getting a discount or a personalised service based on personal data and history, only 3% felt they were willing to hand over data without understanding what was collected or how it was used. At the other end of the scale 3 in 10 strongly disagreed with this approach with almost as many tending to disagree. It would have been interesting to see how many of these people use Amazon or other online shopping sites who do behave like this.

The likelihood is that among the 57% of unhappy respondents a good proportion shop online and probably use Amazon and similar services. This shows a total lack of understanding about what is going on but also a willingness to allow it to happen in order to shop online. It seems that losing control of personal data is not enough to change user behaviour.

Unsurprisingly 9 in 10 people believed that they should have the final say in what a company can and cannot do with their data. One third tended to just agree with this statement while the rest strongly agreed. Without data most of the apps people use as consumers would not be available to them. It would have been extremely interesting if people had been asked how many would be prepared to lose the majority of their mobile games and free apps by forcing a company to always ask them about using their data.

Finally we return to the opportunity for a service that could guarantee the safety and security of personal data and a users online activities. When asked how much they would be prepared to pay for such as service 22% wouldn’t use it, 44% would only use it if it were free and 9% hadn’t a clue. Of those that did put a value on such a service only 4% would pay between £5.01 and £10 and 2% would pay more than that.


Users might say they want protection but they expect it to be free and even then 1 in 5 would not use such a solution. Simply put, users are not willing to pay to protect their data, are prepared to allow their data to be taken in order to get access to an app or shop and are quick to complain in surveys that their data is used unfairly. It is hard to be shocked by any of this and it seems that getting any reasoned debate and responses around this will be a challenge for the BCS.

What is certain, is that any significant reduction in access to data will have a major impact on the amount of free apps available to users. Will users stand for that? Probably not.


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