Is social media data in finance a double-edged sword?

The NSA saga should also make us wary of how private companies are using our personal data.

The revelation that US intelligence agencies are accessing billions of private emails and messages posted on (private) social networks has sparked indignation across the world. The assumption that our information would remain private never lied on strong grounds, but the official confirmation following the Snowden saga has brought new ethical dilemmas into the public sphere, not previously encountered before the advent of the digital era.

The violation of privacy is the biggest issue of all in this story and we might just be seeing the beginning of it as it appears that it is not only the US government who is opening our letters and spying in our drawers. Indeed, the NSA seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of secretive gathering of private data on a global scale.

But what about the use of the information we decide to make public? How do we feel about a third party collecting and analysing information that we have decided to share openly in the first place? And how do we feel about that information being used by the private sector and for commercial purposes?

The increasing use of social media data in the financial services is a good test example. The insurance industry, for instance, has openly publicised how it uses social media as a way of detecting fraud. A few years ago, Manulife was in the news for winning a case against a Canadian employee of IBM on long-term sick leave for depression who posted Facebook photos from the beach and at a Chippendales show. Widespread use of social media continues to allow insurers to spot whiplash victims boasting from their latest ski weekend or laptops claimed to be stolen lingering in the victim’s EBay account.

But the ever-deepening transition into the digital economy may end up generating some drawbacks for companies. Privacy regulations are evolving quickly and peeping on customers’ social data may soon backfire on companies and affect their own reputation. Indeed, how would consumers react if they knew certain companies were particularly active in using social media? Would well-intentioned consumers not care about it given that they have nothing to hide? Or indeed would they still dislike the idea of being under the watch of those who should be providing a service to them?

The list could also be extended to other aspects related to the use of social media: the protection of customer information from cyber attacks,  online etiquette (do we like our car insurer congratulating us on our birthday?) and the sharing of personal data with partnering companies.

As the digital world evolves, companies need to care not only for the opportunities but for the responsibilities that come with the use of social media data.

In the wake of the NSA scandal all the focus is on governments, but what about corporations? Photograph: Getty Images.

Carlos Pallordet is a writer for Timetric

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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