The data intensive society

More complexity is coming with technological advances

There are many ways of describing data in business - there’s big data, small data, long data, predictable data and targeted data. For an individual we use different terms - there’s personal data, sensitive data, private data and personally identifiable information (PII). 


Data at its core is about human beings, and yet we talk about the internet of things – of interconnected devices, networks and processes which are growing and getting more influential. In 2016, the Council of Europe, which administers the European Convention on Human Rights, published a recommendation to all EU member states, suggesting it should be renamed the ‘Internet of Citizens’. The aim of their published guidelines is to ensure that equal consideration is given to citizen involvement in the internet by the organisational stakeholders.

More complexity is coming with technological advances, such as blockchain, which  are rewriting the rule book when it comes to processing data, including personal data.  

With blockchain technology you can’t amend and delete data in the way you can on other systems.

Back in 1964, Professor Marshall McLuhan made an interesting observation that was very prescient of the times we live in today: ‘the medium is the message’. By this he was saying that the medium we choose embeds itself in our message and influences how the message is perceived. Effectively then all media are extensions of ourselves and so all technologies are designed to enhance our physical, social, psychological and intellectual functions and shape our world in new ways.

The distinction between the digital and physical world has blurred to the point where there’s no beginning, middle or end, but one endless continuum of processing our every move as we walk around with a smartphone in our pocket with its geo-location switched to ‘enabled’. 

There are endless ways now of connecting customers, brand owners, technologies and data with each other. The same within a company and from an employee’s perspective, it is concerning and even very scary. For one thing, there are many security risks associated with increased personal data collection within the company and organisation. The next generation of hackers – often an ‘insider’ lurking in the shadows right under the nose of their boss – won’t think twice about releasing health data, public and private personal information about colleagues and customers for personal gain on the dark web. 

So should HR turn up the dial on security of processing measures by deploying ‘state-of-art’ technologies such as blockchain to combat the havoc that can be wrecked by one rogue employee as Bupa, Morrisons  and many others have recently discovered to their cost?

Advocates of blockchain are keen to emphasise that it can create trust in existing online infrastructure that doesn’t currently exist where personal data is being shared between two strangers. 

The basis of blockchain is that it’s a direct, secure transfer of data between two parties without the need for third-party verification. And this is made possible by an encryption solution that ensures that each exchange is unique and can’t be broken.

Although this may look attractive from the outside, it could cause all sorts of HR challenges where the employer must demonstrate transparency and accountability to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

In many cases, it’s not a human but a robot that’s looking at your personal data. But surveillance of this kind, even if dressed up as a way of increasing productivity at the workplace or looking after employee interests, is fraught with danger.  It could lead to a decrease, not increase, in productivity because of stirring up suspicion and mistrust about the intentions of the employer. 

Accepting that we’ve moved to a post-privacy era with social media, privacy still matters to people as a way of shaping their own lives – both at home and at work.

Ardi Kolah LL.M is Executive Fellow and Director of the GDPR Transition Programme, Henley Business School.

Find out more about the GDPR Transition Programme at Henley and how it can benefit you and your organisation.

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