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Personal Data: A Threat Or An Opportunity For Our Industry

The recent GRBN survey on Trust and Personal Data tells us that, across the globe, people are already concerned about the possible misuse of their personal data. As many as 36% are very concerned about this issue.



Editor’s Note: In 2011 The World Economic Forum and Bain & Company released a report “Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class”. This wide ranging and comprehensive study, with contributions from leaders in every global industry, captured the essence of the personal data economy in their introduction:

“We are moving towards a “Web of the world” in which mobile communications, social technologies and sensors are connecting people, the Internet and the physical world into one interconnected network. Data records are collected on who we are, who we know, where we are, where we have been and where we plan to go. Mining and analyzing this data give us the ability to understand and even predict where humans focus their attention and activity at the individual, group and global level…..  Increasing the control that individuals have over the manner in which their personal data is collected, managed and shared will spur a host of new services and applications. As some put it, personal data will be the new “oil” – a valuable resource of the 21st century. It will emerge as a new asset class touching all aspects of society.” 

Indeed, this report gave birth to a new program called the Rethinking Personal Data Initiative which has already defined the value of personal data as an asset class and reinforced the value of trusted data flow. The current stage of the program brings together data experts with practitioners in different commercial environments so that together they can drive results that are practical, implementable, and can be widely communicated. They are looking at how to create and implement the right rules, tools, frameworks and business models to bring about the emergence of a personal data ecosystem where people have greater control over the collection, use, sharing and monetization of their personal data.

Conspicuously absent from the steering group are any representatives from the consumer insights or even marketing organizations. No Nielsen, Kantar, WPP, Publicis, Omnicom, Dentsu, etc… or any other connected organization. And that is a missed opportunity for our industry, for as we can see from the GRBN Trust & Personal Data Report, in some markets the insights industry has an edge in the trust of consumers vs. virtually any other industry, and globally is at least average. We have a stake in the global dialogue around personal data, and perhaps even a larger one than many other industries since consumer data is the driving force of market research. Whether it’s surveys or focus groups or Big Data analytics and applied neuroscience, our industry has historically worked hard to utilize even the most personal and intimate information in a respectful and beneficial way, and as new technologies blur the lines between market research and marketing via single source channels, digital advertising, social media analysis and mobile tracking we have a unique opportunity to apply our historical role as the advocate for consumer empowerment via data sharing with the broader world. It’s a differentiation that we should continue to work hard to develop and a perspective that our trade bodies need to share with both consumers and organizations like the WEF. This report is an important piece of evidence to help us shape that broader discussion, and hats off to GRBN for leading the charge to understand where we stand in the new data-driven world we live (and work) in.

But enough from me. Today Andrew Cannon, Executive Director of the GRBN, share’s his take on the results of the GRBN report and what it means for our industry. It’s good stuff and an important topic.


By Andrew Cannon

I think there is no denying that over the next few years the amount of personal data people will need to share will continue to grow, as access to services, as well as to information, will take place more and more via digital channels.

At the same time, the number of security breaches, both inadvertent and criminal, is also likely to continue to climb.  According to a recent report by PWC: “The total number of security incidents…climbed to 42.8 million this year, an increase of 48% from 2013.*

The recent GRBN survey on Trust and Personal Data** tells us that, across the global, people are already concerned about the possible misuse of their personal data, and as many as 36% are very concerned about this issue. I believe that the increased number of breaches, as well as the increased media coverage of such breaches, will only serve to raise this already high level of concern people feel about the risks.

In turn, I believe people will become more and more careful with whom they share what, where, when, how and why. In this environment, one of the key questions for the market research industry is: how will people’s willingness to share their data, personal and otherwise, with us change over the next few years?

A key determinant of this, in my opinion, will be how much trust people will have in our industry to protect and appropriately use their personal data. According to the same GRBN study, for every one person who highly trusts our industry to do so, there are three who have a very low level of trust in us.

Whilst this may sound alarming, it is in fact an average level of trust on this issue (based on the 17 different types of organisations included in the survey), and it is clearly better than the level of trust people express in, for example, media companies or social media companies.

I believe that our glass is half full on the issue of personal data and trust. I believe we, as an industry, already act responsibly with personal data, and have a fantastic window of opportunity to use the issue of personal data to help build a strong relationship with the general public; a relationship built on trust. For in an environment of high concern, it is with those whom people trust that they will share their data. As our industry relies heavily on the people’s voluntary participation, and as people do not need to give us their data to access services and/or information, we have much to gain, and indeed much to lose, by gaining, or losing, people’s trust.

But, I also believe that this window of opportunity will not stay open for long, and that our industry needs to act now.

We need to actively address and alleviate people’s concerns. We need systems and procedures in place to ensure that we are responsible with the collection, handling, protection and use of personal data. We need to ensure that the risks of inadvertent abuse, as well as security breaches, are minimized. We need to be transparent in our dealings with the general public and to communicate effectively with the public, as well as other stakeholders, such as clients and the authorities, about this issue.

In short, we need to build trust with the general public.

Do you share my views on this opportunity for our industry? If not, why not? If so, what do you think our industry should do in order to seize it? 

Andrew Cannon

Executive Director, GRBN


**A survey of over 23000 adults across 24 countries globally iconducted by the GRBN in co-operation with Research Now. You can access the reports as well as an interactive dashboard, please visit

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5 responses to “Personal Data: A Threat Or An Opportunity For Our Industry

  1. I agree with you, Andrew Cannon, that our industry has a short window of opportunity as an industry to put our imprint on the privacy issue. However, when you think about it this issue of privacy has been around for a long period of time. I remember this issue being discussed in the 70s because of increasing credit card use and new questions being added on the U.S. Census, etc. In truth, at least, one credit union, has for years combined individual behavioral data with attitudinal survey research data, which may be illegal, and gotten away with it, because no one can prove it or has deep enough pockets to sue. In short, privacy rules and laws have been violated for years. I hope we will finally wake up as an industry and do something about it or respondent cooperation rates will fall even lower.

  2. Thanks Nick for the comment! I certainly agree that we need to take decisive action on this issue and do so with urgency. In some parts of the world and amongst some demographics groups, it will be quite “a battle” to (re)build trust, but it is certainly not mission impossible.

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