24/07/2018 13:51 BST | Updated 24/07/2018 13:51 BST

How Bad Data Could Ruin Your Life

So, now that I’ve scared you, the question is what can you do to protect yourself?

Audtakorn Sutarmjam / EyeEm via Getty Images

Have you ever read Kafka’s The Trial? In a nutshell, the protagonist is arrested by an unspecified authority for an unspecified crime. The lack of information and recourse leaves the victim stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare from which he can’t escape. Now, thanks to the way data increasingly influences our lives and the increasing use automation and artificial intelligence, we can all be potential subjects of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Consider, Ibrahim Diallo - he suddenly found himself progressively locked out of the systems at the company he worked for. It culminated in him being escorted from his office by security. His human employers couldn’t give him an explanation as to why, nor could they reverse the machine’s “decision”. A long investigation revealed that a former manager failed to update his credentials on their IT systems. Then there’s Marcus Green who was wrongfully arrested and fined for motoring offences – due to his personal information being mixed up with a criminal.

The list goes on and on. Some incidents are humorous, some are devastating. What unites them all isn’t malicious hacking or serious data breaches – it’s simple human error. Bad data that is inputted into a system which then automates a process, resulting in unforeseen and far-reaching consequences. In some cases, the victim has no idea about what has happened, in others, the error is nearly impossible to rectify.

One of the terms for maintaining the accuracy of data over its entire “life-cycle” is data integrity. For you and me, it means that an organisation that has our data is managing the information correctly and has strong data governance procedures. As nearly every organisation we interact with collects, stores and uses some of our personal information, data integrity is of universal importance.

You may think that because a brand has top notch security credentials it will be a safe pair of hands. Although that’s obviously a crucial factor to deciding who to entrust with your personal data, how a business manages this data is just as important. As I’ve said, you don’t need a data breach for your data to be corrupted, a fat finger will do.

So, now that I’ve scared you, the question is what can you do to protect yourself?

First, think carefully about which organisations you share your data with. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has made this incredibly easy. It may be very tempting to ignore all the pop ups from websites and emails asking you to review your privacy and data settings, however, this removes a powerful tool to mapping where your data has gone and what it is being used for. Remember, the more organisations that use the data, the more likely there is for mistakes to happen.

Next, cut off untrustworthy companies. If a brand has a track record of breaches, misuse of data and other unscrupulous or negligent practices, it’s safe to assume they won’t have very robust data management procedures. GDPR lets you revoke consent and demand the deletion of any personal data a company holds on you.

Finally, check the information that is out there on you. GDPR enables the porting of personal information into whatever format you want. You can request that your bank, credit rating agency, retailers, Government organisations, etc. send you what they have on file. This allows you to correct any errors. Of course, this can be a very laborious process and it’s not really a long-term solution given that your personal data can be modified at any time. An alternative is to exercise this right before you make a serious personal decision. For example, if you’re going to apply for a loan – check all the financial data that is held on you.

There is of course no substitute for education. If you know the power of personal data to impact your life, the companies that hold your data, how they use it and why – you’re going to be better equipped to identify when ‘bad data’ may have played a role in something going wrong. Protect yourself with GDPR and be careful with the organisation you entrust with your data. 

It’s also worth remembering the power of the new data economy to do good. Data has generally made products cheaper and better, provided countless new services and efficiencies, and revolutionised nearly every industry. Almost every part of your life has been impacted and improved by the ethical and responsible use of data. This is why it’s so important to protect the data economy and your position within it.