Last Thursday I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on digital privacy in Palo Alto hosted by the Business Association Italy America (BAIA), a network of entrepreneurs, managers and professionals focused on innovation. Personally, an event like this is always a bit of a stretch for an introvert like me, but I’m very glad I was coaxed out of my shell to engage on this important topic.
On the panel with me were two fascinating people, Professor Alessandro Acquisti and Andrea Vaccari. Andrea was a hot commodity that night, as he is co-founder and CEO of Glancee. Glancee had just been acquired by Facebook, and Facebook was going public the next day. Alessandro is a true expert in the field of Information Technology and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon.
As panel moderator Mary Trigiani put it, we were two Digital Immigrants and One Digital Native coming together, representing diverse perspectives. And the difference in perspective on on digital privacy issues between the Digital Natives in the room, who were more comfortable with their persona, behaviors, and lifestyle being out there and accessible on the Web was noticeable that night. The Digital Natives were not necessarily pushing the boundaries, but more were either unaware of the boundaries being pushed or not at all bothered by them, seemingly confident that things would be okay. The Digital Immigrants, on the other hand, expressed much more concern about how acquired data can be used by Companies for great good and great evil.
Alessandro shared his thought-provoking experiment, where he and a team of research analysts constructed a mobile App to generate a person’s social security number from a snapped photo of a stranger’s face. All based on freely available software, online databases, and statistical processing.
Andrea pointed out that we all leave “digital footprints”—data that is left behind, collected, and available for use. As an example, he related a story from Business Insider that told of how Target got into some hot water when they used observed shopping patterns to indicate women that are likely pregnant, and then used this statistically derived information to send coupons to those theoretically pregnant women. The technology proved to be so good that it exposed a teen girl’s pregnancy to her father when he found the coupons that had been sent to her.
In my view, this technology is still way ahead of the law. Living and working in Silicon Valley, every day we see analytics technology being applied relentlessly to redefine business and the way businesses work, online retailers challenging the way states levy sales tax, and online shopping experiences getting more and more targeted. Digital Privacy law requires legislation, and legislation is the purview of governments, regulatory bodies and advocacy groups—in other words, it’s not a speedy process. Structurally, legislative timelines will always lag the incredible pace of technology adoption, with the result being that most of what is technically feasible has not only not been regulated, but probably isn’t even being thought about yet in our legislative bodies.
In this digital privacy environment, many companies simply state they are “in compliance with all federal and state laws…”, but what does this really mean? Given this known lag, companies should be responsible for operating at a higher standard when deciding how to best to manage and protect information from inappropriate use. Setting internal privacy boundaries and codes of behavior proactively mitigates the negative effects of overstepping the mark and the subsequent consumer backlash. At FirstRain two of our core values are “Act with integrity at all times” and “Take ownership for the company’s success”. For us, keeping these values at the forefront helps maintain the balance between ethics and profit.
FirstRain provides our customers (B2B sales and marketing professionals) with relevant customer and industry information to increase revenue and strengthen relationships. Our users are business professionals who want to quickly and efficiently access only the information they require to drive revenue in their businesses. Now, the more we at FirstRain know about each customer, the better an intelligence solution we can then offer. But often they do not have the time or patience to enter a boat-load of personal preference information—and therefore the tension between relevance, business objectives and customer analytics. In this case, I believe the use of a thoughtful combination of “self-declared” information, combined with “observed” behavior (e.g., likes/dislikes, click-throughs, etc.) and “inferred” statistics can make a massive difference. The key is using the information with integrity and only for the intended purpose of delivering an improved customer experience.
I am concerned about digital privacy, and the lack of tools for consumers to access, verify and fix incorrect or inaccurate information out there. I am also sure that in the years ahead we will see businesses continue to push the digital privacy boundaries. There will be some notable scares, subsequent backlashes and regulatory adjustments. However, I am personally also looking forward to a massively improved user experience.
A big thank you goes to our hosts Giorgio Ghersi and Mary Trigiani at BAIA, for being wonderful hosts, and our own Daniela Barbosa, here at FirstRain, for her tireless focus on making sure this introvert turned up and participated.