Australia is lagging other countries in its understanding of the impacts of ‘big data’ collection and consumer profiling, the Consumer Policy Research Centre (CPRC) today warned – prompting the organisation to kick off a new research program and offer a $100,000 research grant.

CPRC Chief Executive Lauren Solomon pointed to data ‘warehouses’ in the US that now hold 1500 pieces of information on about 96 percent of residents from which detailed consumer profiles can be built, and said that it would be incredibly naive to think this sort of amalgamation was not also occurring in Australia.

“A recent study by the Office of Australian Information Commissioner found that 79 percent of Australians were uncomfortable with businesses sharing their information with other businesses, but 65 percent of us admit to not reading privacy policies,” Ms Solomon said.

“Buried within terms and conditions and privacy policies, we’re increasingly finding clauses that give consent to companies to acquire and share data about our preferences, behaviour and attributes. From loyalty programs, to the apps we download, to eligibility screening for products and services, data is featuring everywhere.

“Some aspects of big data and consumer profiling can absolutely deliver positive outcomes for consumers, such as: more relevant movie or product recommendations, improved user experience, or enabling better comparisons of products and services.

“What’s troubling, however, is that globally we’re seeing a trend towards personalised pricing – techniques where products can be pitched at the individual’s ‘maximum willingness to pay’, based on profiles that have been built by mining all this data we have unwittingly provided.

“For people who may have gone through a rough patch, or are disadvantaged, the evidence from overseas suggests that they can be left behind. This includes having trouble getting access to the full suite of goods and services, or being charged more for the same products than their neighbours,” she said.

Another concerning aspect identified by the European Union is the harvesting of personal and consumer data about children. The EU is moving to impose restrictions on the processing of children’s personal data with changes to the General Data Protection Regulations that will take effect in May.

Global consulting groups, international experts and regulators are highlighting the need to carefully consider how we manage consumer data, but we’ve yet to really start talking about it in Australia,” Ms Solomon said.

“Big data can absolutely yield big benefits, but we do need to have a national conversation about what sort of consumer markets we want in the new digital economy. Will they be inclusive? And will consumers have real choices over how their data is used and shared? Ultimately, this is about protecting a fair go for all consumers.”