Value of data underestimated - until it's lost

2014-03-26 13:11
People have the responsibility to guard their personal data despite a South African law that offers some protection. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

People have the responsibility to guard their personal data despite a South African law that offers some protection. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - The value of private data is often underestimated until it is lost and new legislation is designed to protect consumers from companies which mishandle personal data, an industry insider said.

"I don't think people appreciate how valuable their privacy is until it is lost. People give away their most valuable asset via an asymmetrical value exchange with online companies," said JJ Milner, founder and chief cloud architect at Global Micro.

The company specialises in cloud and data services and the recent Protection of Personal Information Act, commonly known as Popi, places new restrictions of how local firms can use personal information.

The biggest change to the law is that people have to opt in to schemes to have their data shared, but this applies to companies operating within SA, potentially allowing online organisations or international companies to escape the provisions of the law.

"If you sign up to have your personal data accessed through, for instance, Facebook, something as simple as the searches you are carrying out can be sold to a marketer. You may trust the news or retail company that you have given permission to access your data, but you don’t know who else they may share your data with," said Milner.


Indeed, the global social network is focused on selling ads to generate revenue and admits that it uses personal data to achieve targeted advertising.

"Sometimes we get data from our affiliates or our advertising partners, customers and other third parties that helps us (or them) deliver ads, understand online activity, and generally make Facebook better. For example, an advertiser may tell us information about you (like how you responded to an ad on Facebook or on another site) in order to measure the effectiveness of - and improve the quality of - ads," Facebook says in its terms and conditions.

While this is not illegal, the issue of sharing data with third parties is, under Popi, forbidden without the expressed permission of the "data subject" - you.

"Personal information may only be processed if, given the purpose or which it is processed, it is adequate, relevant and not excessive," says the act.

Milner said that the purpose of the legislation was to hand power over personal data back to consumers in line with the practice in Europe.

"The spirit of the European legislation - with which the South African legislation in its current form is closely aligned - is to hand back a measure of control to consumers. It requires companies to have an extra opt-in level, alerting consumers to what information they are giving and what will be done with that information."

However, many companies' call centres continue to use contact details obtained from third parties in apparent ignorance of the act's provisions.


Between January and March 2014, a cursory News24 observation demonstrated that several call centre consultants were reticent when pressed on how they acquired the phone numbers.

It will be difficult for consumers to have redress on these matters though. While at odds with the law, a regulator for Popi has not been appointed yet as companies have time to become compliant on their own.

"We are waiting for the regulator to be appointed to get a better understanding of this [company accountability]. Non-compliance will at some point be penalised but to what extent can only be speculated at this point," Andrew Kirkland, regional director for Trustwave Africa told News24.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    trustwave  |  online privacy

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