Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Would You Sell Your Privacy for Service Improvement?

When you put the question so bluntly, most people would probably say no.  But in reality this is the common situation many users face when signing up to cloud services, applications and retail sites.

Think of the following common scenario:  you want to get a quote for car insurance / car valuation / current house price or similar.  You will probably be faced with several click through forms where you fill in the necessary product information.  But, and there's always a but, you then need to fill in some personal contact information as a minimum before you are provided with the information you're looking for.  A sort of exchange of data for data.  Just so happens yours is personal.  In addition, you may also need to sign away how that personal data is going to be used.  Perhaps marketing emails or letters via the service provider themselves, or perhaps by a 'trusted' third party.  A final, more subtle exchange of data, is that the service provider now clearly knows you are looking for new insurance / moving house / selling your car.  That is quite a powerful personal context to each of those scenarios.

Is The Exchange of Information Worth It?

This is obviously a subjective question as the information you exchange will have a different value to each data owner.  You could argue that personal contact information is pretty much public domain anyway.  They have been Yellow Page equivalents and directory enquiries facilities for decades.

Finding someones personal or work email address is also pretty trivial these days, simply as they are so commonly used to sign up to so many services.  Many also will take the view, that if someone does send you a marketing or spam email, your ISP filters will simply place it into a junk folder and no harm is done.

If in return, you receive a free white paper, document, quote, temporary access to a new service, or signup to a freemium product perhaps giving away some personal contact information is a good deal?

However, what happens to the data that is harvested?  Where does it end up?  Contact information is one thing, but adding in additional details such as your personal circumstances, how many people live in your property if it's for an insurance quote for example, or perhaps releasing your mobile number, could result in future impacts on your privacy.

Is There An Impact On Privacy?

Again this could be a subjective answer.  There have been many discussions in the past 36 months regarding government surveillance of both individuals and government officials.  I am not an advocate for or against surveillance, but was there a physical impact on the individual during the snooping?  Note the word during.  Many people talked about the invasion of privacy and human rights, but that was only after they knew they had been observed.  The reaction was generally a retrospective one, not an active one.  That is not to say it's less valid, but the context needs to be applied.  The same could be said regarding commercial use of personal data. It's all good, until it isn't.  Whilst no one uses your personal data maliciously, is there a problem to address?  This can probably be classified in the same file as the infamous 'unknown unknowns' approach to threat intelligence by the US government.

eCommerce, Digitization and 'Sticky' Customers

Many organizations have no interest in using personal data maliciously.  The increased digitization of previously physical services and the increased use of online retail, has lead many organizations trying to get a better picture of their consumers, customers and potential customers.  Note the subtle difference between a consumer (who is actively using a service perhaps without registration eg Google), a customer (paying for a service or good) and potential customer.  All have different characteristics from a marketing and customer servicing perspective.  A organisation wants to get the individual perhaps down a consumer --> customer --> repeat/upselling customer route as quickly as possibly, but with a stickiness towards the latter part of the journey - ie when they're a customer keep hold of them.

The information exchange at the beginning of that cycle is key to helping organisations follow that flow.  From a individuals perspective, there needs to be a strong service improvement or cost saving aspect in order to sacrifice some of the data that is being asked for.

By Simon Moffatt