'Degrading' data the solution to customer privacy concerns?

21st Jun 2010

A Dutch researcher is exploring ways of enabling the personal information that websites gather about visitors to gradually fade away in order to address much-talked about privacy concerns.

According to the BBC, Dr Harold van Heerde from the Centre for Telematics and Information Technology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands is exploring ways of changing the way that databases manage the information that they hold about customers and users.

The problem today is that, while many organisations are tempted to hoard such data in case it proves valuable in future, more or less permanent storage simply increased the risk of it being leaked by accident or design, van Heerde warned.

"People make mistakes. People can be bribed. You cannot protect this data. You cannot be sure it’s not been disclosed. Privacy policies are simply too weak," he said.

As a result, rather than simply having users refuse to engage with services that gather data, van Heerde believes it would be more constructive to subject such services to a policy that determined how data should degrade over time.

For example, while all relevant personal details might be stored after consumers had undertaken a transaction, individual pieces of data could slowly be swapped out and replaced by more general information. Location-specific search data, which included users’ exact GPS coordinates, could over time be exchanged for a street name, followed by a neighbourhood and then a city, for instance.

Such activity would not only limit the impact of any data leakage, it might also force companies to be more open and explicit about what data they harvest and to what ends they are employing it, van Heerde said.

"In most cases, there’s no good reason for them storing data for so long," he added.


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