Why is it so hard to explain how we use personal data?

June 2020

Five ways to help explain complex and contentious data uses

I was chatting to my niece the other day, a young mum with two young children who spends a lot of time on Facebook. She has hundreds of friends. She had posted a message asking if it was true that when you install the Covid app it will ask permission to share all your contacts from Facebook. One of her friends had posted;

“I am asking you to please delete me and my details from your phone contact list and any other app, as well as un-friend me on Facebook before installing the tracking app on your smart phone.”

I was rather taken aback by this wildly inaccurate assertion given the reality is a far cry from this. The device is basically designed to pick up blue-tooth signals so you are able to track whether you have been in close proximity to anyone who has reported symptoms/tested positive.

I don’t propose to go into the pros and cons of centralised vs de-centralised databases as the arguments have been rehearsed extensively elsewhere. Whatever your political persuasion we need this track and trace programme to succeed. This is a public health crisis and we need everyone to sign up. If there was ever a situation requiring special measures, this must surely be it.

There is a caveat though; we can’t allow carte blanche to collect and keep any data.  Some have expressed valid concerns about the open-ended nature of some of the proposals. Is it really necessary to keep ‘Track and Trace’ data for 20 years?

My niece’s post got me thinking about the importance of clear and transparent communication from Data Controllers around the use of personal data and how, thus far, it has been largely absent.

Successfully explaining the how and why of data processing has to be a top priority otherwise we’ll see many more of those misleading messages spreading like wildfire and resulting in anxious and concerned people avoiding the app and reducing the efficacy of the programme. This point applies to every single business who processes personal data.

To keep things practical here’s a checklist of five ways to help get the message across:

  1. Use different communication methods – not everyone likes reading long screeds of text. Particularly if, like my niece, you are dyslexic. It’s not going to happen. I know it is early days but I hope that NHS and the government indulge in some creative communication methods such as infographics, videos, cartoons to get their message across. Channel 4 are an exemplar as are The Guardian.
  2. Using plain English – if you have to write it down, make sure it’s couched in terms that your target audience will understand. Plain English, short sentences, easy to understand words should be deployed to get your message across. Various reports place average reading age as 8, 9 or 11. Whatever the truth there are large chunks of the population who will not understand what you have written if you restrict your messaging to rather formal and, frankly long-winded, DPIAs and Privacy Statements.
  3. Use layers of communication – the ICO advocates a layered approach to communicating complicated messages. If you create a thread through your messages from clear top-level headlines with clear links to additional information there is a higher chance of achieving better levels of comprehension.
  4. Keep it short and sweet – having read the 30 + page DPIA for the Covid app I was struck by how repetitive it is. Not only do you lose the will to live but comprehension levels are low and confusion levels are high leading to Twitter storms about what is and is not in the document. All of which is rather unhelpful.
  5. Be upfront and transparent – not only is it easier to understand but most sensible people can work out for themselves if the data processing makes sense without anyone needing to embellish it with soothing words which obfuscate and confuse. It can feel scary to tell individuals what is happening with their data but if you can explain why and, crucially, explain what’s in it for the individual all will be fine. For those fans of Gogglebox over the last few weeks, it’s perfectly obvious that people can work out what’s going on.

Overall though, this is a major marketing challenge. Explaining how you use personal data is an important branding project which allows a company to reflect their values and their respect for their customers.

The marketing teams need to get close to their legal colleagues and use their formidable communication skills to make these important data messages resonate and make sense.