Our personal information is extremely valuable. But while it is valuable to us, it is also valuable to others. We value our privacy, but we appear to be increasingly willing to give some of it up in order to benefit from the online services we deem useful. Where should we draw the line? What are the responsibilities of the organisations that use our data? The continuing expansion of the internet, and with it the boom in free-flowing data, has caused the debate over these and other questions to become increasingly heated.
A few figures illustrate the scale of this data boom. Facebook, the social network, said recently that it processes 2.5 billion pieces of information from its users every day: holiday photos, private messages, public chats, "likes", "unlikes", app installations - not to mention the very personal information that users include in their biographies. Walmart, the US supermarket giant, says that it handles more than 1 million customer transactions per hour, and claims that its databases hold 167 times the information held by the Library of Congress, the biggest library in the world.
For many companies and organisations, this phenomenal explosion of highly valuable data has created an economy in itself. For media organisations in particular, the data is especially useful. Previously, newspapers, magazines and broadcasters relied on panels, surveys and in-home metering systems to generate often inaccurate analyses of people's consumption habits. These organisations are now presented with consumption data on their own doorsteps: the clicks on their websites, for example, can be monitored and analysed, as can the viewing habits of each digital TV subscriber.
But for consumers, there remains great anxiety about the extent to which their personal data is being used by these same groups. Privacy campaigners have taken Facebook to task on numerous occasions over the way the company extracts, uses and then profits from its members' freely-supplied information. A survey by Ofcom's Communications Consumer Panel in 2011 suggested that 69 per cent of consumers were not happy with web "cookies" - a tool that allows companies to collect data about how people use websites.
Yet none of these fears appear to have had a significant impact on people's willingness to post their data online. Most appear to be happier to part with their data, or be subjected to targeted adverts, than pay for online services. Then again, pro-privacy campaigners have argued that most people are unaware that they are giving up so much personal information, or that they have in any way agreed to take part in such a trade.
If anything is clear, it is that the debate over the legitimate use of our personal data rages on. Considerations about personal privacy, ownership of data and the public's attitude towards the exploitation of personal data have all been thrown into the ring. But for media organisations, one aspect is missing from the debate: a proper discussion on how they can effectively use this data to better their businesses.
Olswang has created a programme of research and analysis designed to stimulate discussion about the impact of digital data on the media industry. Launched in October this year, Tomorrow's Media: The Data Debates aims to discover which steps those in the media need to take to benefit from this emerging digital economy.
This article was first published in The Times Changing Business series. It can be found by clicking here.