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Consumer Privacy Is Emerging As THE Story Of The Year

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If there were any doubts that consumer privacy is going to be the story of 2019, they were dispelled this week. Amid the noise of Facebook’s longest ever outage (sixteen hours), three very important stories emerged.

First, was Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that Facebook’s family of products (including Instagram and WhatsApp), will be moving towards a “fundamentally more private experience.” His now stated belief is that the future of social media is private, encrypted communication. Apparently he’s serious, as the blowback was the departure of two key executives, most importantly, chief product officer Chris Cox. Likely, they didn’t agree on this direction, and Cox, after thirteen years, had had enough.

Then, in the US Senate, a bi-partisan bill was introduced by Bill Schatz and Roy Blunt to protect people’s facial recognition data and make it harder to sell. In the words of Engadget, this data is now treated as “currency.” So now we have the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act of 2019, which prohibits companies from collecting and re-sharing face data for identifying or tracking purposes without people's consent. Will this bill pass? If not today, sometime soon, for sure.

Do we think a bill is far behind that would prohibit companies from collecting and re-sharing consumer phone radio ID’s matched up with email addresses? I don’t. The industry collectively has to tread very, very lightly.

It’s not for nothing that AT&T announced in January that it would stop selling location data to third parties after a Motherboard (a division of Vice News) investigation. To be clear, we think anonymized location data is very useful to retailers, but non-anonymized data is only useful to report the scene of an accident or crime. Of course, if permission is given, non-anoymized data is fine, like the previously mentioned accidents or crime scenes or even personalized offers.

Finally, in a somewhat surprise move (and speaking of treading lightly), Apple released this commercial touting its privacy initiatives. The blurb under the video on YouTube is straightforward:

Your privacy matters. From encrypting your iMessage conversations, or not keeping a history of your routes in Maps, to limiting tracking across sites with Safari. iPhone is designed to protect your information.”

Oh. Maybe privacy isn’t just an old person thing after all, huh? And maybe there is just so much privacy consumers are willing to trade for relevancy despite what we hear. I’m not going to get into the things Apple hasn’t said in that blurb, but the point is, they chose now to produce the commercial.

So what does all this mean? Are all the vendors providing personalization services supposed to pack up their tents and go home? Of course not. Do I think that Facebook’s decision is wise? It actually seems to be more borne of desperation – as in being unable to stop the flood of fake accounts and trolls onto its platform, and its prior habit of indiscriminately selling personal data to third parties (can we spell Cambridge Analytica?). In fact, The New York Times reported that there’s a criminal investigation into Facebook’s data sharing arrangements, most of which are now suspended.

I’ll miss my newsfeeds, but I won’t miss reading ridiculous stories about the dangers of 5G technology (all backed by dubious sources), and the political maelstrom that seems to be taking most of the world by storm.

I think most consumers are willing to trade a certain amount of privacy for intelligent targeting… but the key is to get permission first. Not in long statements in small print that a busy person might not read, but in bold letters: “By using our mobile app here, you are giving us permission to track where you go and what you do. In exchange, we promise to deliver a better shopping experience.”

I just checked, and according to MS Word, that sentence is understandable by people with a 9th grade reading level and is 30 words. With some work, I could probably get it even simpler. But you get the point. Consumers do want relevancy. They also want privacy. It’s the job of retailers and the entire mobile ecosystem to provide them with both.

The time is now.

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Articles & Opinions March 19, 2019
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