We’re coming off a year that was highlighted by several data breaches around the world. In India, the Aadhaar debate continues to make headlines, with allegations about its data theft and Big Brother potential for surveillance. And for quite a while now, the marketing world has been suffused with mention of artificial intelligence, chatbots, big data, data-driven analytics, and other such buzzwords. The ultimate, stated aim is to make life simpler for the citizen/customer. But how secure is our data, which we put out there both voluntarily and by mandate, and what can we do to protect it?

Laziness will hurt

A study by security services provider Gemalto found that retailers (76 per cent), banks (74 per cent) and social media sites (71 per cent) operating in India have a lot of work to do on this front. Consumers would leave if their personal information suffered a breach, it said. Even as the majority of customers said businesses don’t treat their data with due respect, they did not take enough precautions themselves, it observed. Fifty-one per cent of the study’s respondents used the same password across several online accounts and many did not use even available solutions such as two-factor authentication to protect social media accounts, making them susceptible to data breaches. They also believed the onus of protecting data lay on the business.

Caveats of little help

So, caveat emptor? “Caveat emptor has meaning only when the customer has enough knowledge to protect himself,” says Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. Using the sausage factory analogy (no one knew what went into the products and how clean they were), he says few know how big data is used. Regulation can help in this regard. He expects India to have data protection rules in place in a couple of years.

The Government has set up a committee of experts headed by Justice BN Srikrishna to look into the issue, invite comments and propose a draft law. The objective is to “ensure growth of the digital economy while keeping personal data of citizens secure and protected.” As of now, there is no law that exclusively deals with data protection though there are some provisions in the Information Technology Act of 2011.

Efficiency all round

ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Executive Director Puneet Nanda says digital data storage has catalysed efficiency on several fronts. “Technology helps us swiftly identify the nominee and facilitates faster payouts as compared to the times when the information was stored physically. It has improved turnaround times and enabled delivery of superior service leading to higher customer satisfaction. Corporations can provide customers instant gratification. Today, we can issue a policy in minutes. Proliferation of technology has enabled corporations to identify customer needs and make offers best suited to their requirements.”

CIS will offer comments to the Srikrishna Committee. Abraham says such laws in other countries define what personal information is, establish the office of the regulator, have powers to receive and investigate complaints and ensure marketers fall in line. Regulators have punitive powers as well. In 2014, telecom major Verizon had to pay $7.4 million in the US to settle a Federal Communications Commission complaint about advertising to customers without letting them know they had an opt-out option. The privacy conditions one routinely “agrees” to online does not give the data controller a free ticket to do what they want with the information, he says.

Not much one can do

Abraham says there is very little the customer can do, other than “acts of civil disobedience, tell lies, fill out false information” when there’s little protection. Rana Gupta, Vice President – APAC, Identity and Data Protection, Gemalto, says one is not left with many choices in an increasingly digital world, not to mention the social pressure. Imagine asking for time off from work to withdraw some cash from your bank because you are suspicious of ATMs? “Users have to rely on organisations doing the right thing,” he says. Regulation making data encryption and second-factor authentication mandatory will help. Customers have begun to ask how data is being secured, and whether it is encrypted. Addressing such concerns would help businesses such as e-commerce and banks, which are increasingly dependent on an online presence.

Even though they’re painful to remember and key in, long passwords that include a capital letter, a special character and a number are deterrents to misuse, as are one-time passwords and messages that alert/ confirm users logging in to an account or transacting a deal. Rohan Bhargava, Co-founder of cashback and coupons site CashKaro.com, says businesses have to design the best methods to thwart the worst intentions. “Companies are vulnerable when they take short cuts at basic processes.”

Bhargava says his company prefers to build most of the technical products it needs, itself, rather than resort to third-party builders/providers. Marketers, he says, experiment with a lot of untested products and the scripts they use can be the root of the problem.

Checks and balances at every stage, running security reviews whenever something changes, effectively managing the life cycle of the encryption keys and limiting access to customer data are vital. The responsibility for securing data lies with both customer and marketer but the latter’s is the larger responsibility as it is they who implement and have the infrastructure that the user does not, says Gemalto’s Gupta.