James Walker: Crystal ball predicts epic battle over personal data

James Randi's scepticism is an example to all internet users. Photograph: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images
James Randi's scepticism is an example to all internet users. Photograph: Frederick M Brown/Getty Images
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When I was a younger, I saw a psychic performing on television. She seemed to know huge amounts of information about the people in the audience through her mystical powers. I thought it was a bit spooky at the time. Then years later I saw a magician – the great James Randi – performing the same routine.

He explained that he was using a technique called “cold reading”, where he gleaned a little information from spying on the audience but most from reading their reactions while speaking to them. He proved that he was faking magic powers – but I was impressed by how much he could still get right.

Flash forward to 2018. I went to see a comedian who also demonstrated how much he knew about members of the audience. Only this time he wasn’t using cold reading to do it. He was demonstrating how much we give away on the internet. And it was literally shocking.

People gasped as he highlighted the intimate details of their lives, their bank details, passwords, preferences. All are easily found online. To be honest, lots of the audience (myself included) had a giggle about how naïve some people had been in sharing the intimate details of their lives so openly (and carelessly) online.

However, later, when I got home and turned on Facebook, a series of targeted adverts popped up about a sale from a shop I’d searched for online a few days earlier – which I’d only done to help a friend return an item. These adverts – as many of you will be aware – work by identifying things you might be interested in (like online searches) and matching adverts to them. Unfortunately, in recent years, a spate of cases of people being “outed” as a result of LGBT focused adverts appearing on their social media pages have occurred due to less-than-subtle marketeering.

I realised that in 2018, it’s time we got control over our own data – because everyone from businesses to fraudsters are “reading” us. But we can fight back for our privacy.

In May 2018, the all-new Data Protection Act will be introduced. The act will aim to tackle some of the key concerns about privacy and will give us a series of rights to see, object to and remove data held online. This is great news, but it means that businesses will adapt to the new rules and develop new strategies to market and target us. For example, the new rules mean you must give “active” consent for a firm to use your data. This means no “pre-ticked” boxes. But what if a firm implies that it can only give you an offer if you share your data? And what about those apps that allow you to sign up to organisations using Facebook or Google?

Half the battle is our own. If we all make a pact to change our pins and passwords this week, take off personal details from social media pages and question why we’re being asked for private details we make it so much harder for our data to fall into the wrong hands.

But increasingly, we need to stand up to organisations that take our data, sell it on, use it to sell goods to us and refuse to tell us what they’re holding online.

Let’s make 2018 the year we take back our data – and deal with those who abuse it.

James Walker is the founder of online complaint-resolution service Resolver.co.uk