Walking the Tightrope Between Insight and Data Privacy

Zuzanna Pasierbinska-Wilson

How much is your digital identity worth? It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. Digital identity is so much more than just your user name and password. It combines data on who we are, our history, our interests and our preferences. Put all of these attributes together and a remarkably accurate and traceable picture appears of how we live, work and socialize. That identity data is one of the greatest assets any organization can have.

A retailer, for example, will have knowledge of its customers’ shopping basket, where they shop, their hobbies, family needs and more. A mobile operator will know where you roam, who you call, who you connect with. And financial institution will know who you transact with, your credit score and your profile.

Like it or not, we all leave a ‘digital exhaust’ behind every movement, transaction and communication. And organizations want a part of that. By understanding more about our needs, preferences and behavior—and analyzing that data—they can target us more easily with compelling offers, deliver a more personalized service and, in the case of government, provide more efficient, joined-up public services.

Here’s the problem. Personal data may be the new currency in the digital market, but like any currency it has to be stable and it has to be trustworthy. And that trust often breaks down.

We are seeing more and more personal data being vulnerable to inadvertent of malicious loss and misuse. The result of which can be legal action, substantial fines, customer churn and damage to the brand reputation. We’re all familiar with the story of the young girl who shopped at Target, which discovered that she was pregnant before her family did. And the story earlier this year that, if a customer enabled voice command on Samsung’s Smart TV, the TV could in fact, listen to all conversations in its vicinity, capture that data and transmit it to a third party. These are the tip of a very large iceberg of data leakages that all had severe consequences for the companies involved.

Balancing insight against privacy is no easy game
Business and society are increasingly struggling with what this privacy really means. “The Future of Privacy,” a December 2014 report by the Pew Center for Internet and Society, found both discrepancies in respondents’ definitions of privacy, and disagreement about whether such a thing as a privacy infrastructure would really exist by 2025. Some even argued that privacy would become a “luxury,” accessible only to those who could afford to pay more to keep their personal information private.

At the same time, the definition of privacy is being challenged as technology far outpaces our ability to predict its various implications. Social data generated on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube, for example, are fast becoming among the most voluminous, complex and personal data sources in the digital universe.

Other social platforms do offer differing levels of control, from public platforms like WordPress, Tumblr and YikYak, to private messaging services such as Snapchat and Path. Sina Weibo, VKontakte, Line and others are structured differently in terms of features and privacy controls, based on local legal, political and cultural factors.

What does this all mean? There is no common standard for data privacy, and there likely never will be. However, business leaders need to look closely at how they use data strategically in their organizations, and assess what the likely impacts may be—not only on short-term revenue gain, but also on long-term trusted relationships. Maintaining that balance, in which both businesses and their customers thrive, should be the guiding principle of any leader.

This issue of data privacy is discussed in greater depth in a compelling new thought leadership study by Altimeter Group on behalf of DataSift. The tone of which is best encapsulated by Russell Marsh, former global chief data officer at IPG Mediabrands, who commented, “Data affects people’s lives, and there’s an ethical and moral responsibility that goes along with it.”

You can find out more about how organizations can balance the need for data insight with consumer trust in our upcoming webinar, Staying on the Right Side of the Fence When Analyzing Human Data.

Zuzanna Pasierbinska-Wilson

Written by Zuzanna Pasierbinska-Wilson

Zuzanna is SVP, Marketing at DataSift. You can follow her @fattypontoonski.

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