Searching for online data safety

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So Google has done the right thing and signed a commitment to improve its data handling. From a company that has the informal corporate slogan, “don’t be evil”, this is only to be expected. Sources inside the company report that the board has been mortified by the StreetView data problems and has been telling staff how embarrassed it has felt by the problem.

Those employees will now have to undergo training into their obligations around data protection (in the UK at least) while the company faces an audit by the Information Commissioner to ensure it is keeping its promise. Expect nothing less than a clean sheet when it does.

What the accidental capture of personal information from wi-fi feeds has highlighted is that, in our wired world, you can find yourself on the wrong side even with the best of intentions. Most organisations worry about how personal data might leak out of their business. Google was caught out when personal data leaked in.

That’s a real lesson for all brands when thinking about the new role social networks may play in marketing. From Twitter to Facebook, individuals are increasingly putting their personal information into the public domain without thinking about the consequences.

If marketers start to capture those feeds, perhaps as part of “listening to the customer”, they could find themselves replicating Google’s unconscious error. Personal data may end up on the database without appropriate consent and permission, opening the business to potential liability and lawsuits.

Social networks are populated by individuals who believe their hashtag or profile name is anonymous. Without that apparent shield, they would likely be less free with their opinions and posts. That would be a shame, so it behoves brands when they start to harvest social data to establish best practice.

Defining what that looks like is harder. Online data may not contain a specific personal identifier. Yet when it gets aggregated together in one place, identifying the individual becomes almost unavoidable. Researchers have already shown this using apparently anonymous search data from Google.

Now the world’s biggest search engine has discovered it is playing in field of personal data management, perhaps it will help by leading the debate about keeping online data safe.

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