Experts Ask if There’s Truly a Responsible Way to Collect Customer Data

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With so many online services collecting information about their clients, it makes sense that those in the political sphere have started to make a lot of noise regarding this issue. Customers have begun to raise serious questions about who is tracking them and what they can do to reduce the amount of data recorded about their online activities. Relatively few of these same consumers have actually stopped doing business with online services that have questionable privacy policies.

Some are agitating for increased oversight, which has naturally led those in the business world to raise concerns about new regulations. Customers also continue to demand personalized services, which require at least some data collection to function. Around 44% of all netizens surveyed claim to get frustrated if they don’t get served a custom-tailored online experience on every platform they have accounts for. Engineers still haven’t found a way to create truly personal spaces without tracking users, so some sort of balancing act is necessary to ensure both privacy and functionality.

Debates Flare Up Surrounding Data Retention Policies

Civil libertarians in the computer industry have long argued that there’s no way to track users online while still keeping their activity private. Dedicated individuals could find ways around techniques used to anonymize customer records, which means even the most secure user information could potentially become public knowledge. Less than 10% of technology companies even have suitable data protections in place to begin with, which calls into question whether or not there’s even a way for companies to collect any form of information without a serious breach of ethics.

Automotive telematics might be a rare example of a field where user tracking only ever occurs with the full consent of those being monitored. The connection between telematics and car insurance has been strong for some time now, as motorists give their coverage providers the privilege to monitor their driving habits and adjust their rates accordingly. Under this kind of data collection scheme, safer drivers are rewarded with discounts and an overall lower deductible.

Clients who feel uncomfortable with such monitoring can always opt out of the program and instead pay a base rate. Not all industries are so flexible, however. Search technology, for instance, is so pervasive that the average netizen might not even be aware of how much they’re being tracked. Legal experts have questioned whether the existence of privacy policies even provide an adequate degree of consent because few users are aware of their existence.

Public Markets for Private Information

Regardless of whether or not a person consented to a given organization’s data retention policy, there’s enough of a market for their information that it can be difficult to resist the temptation to sell everything known about them. The price people are willing to pay for otherwise private records. One data broker claimed that they could earn between one and four dollars for each customer that they developed sophisticated records for.

Location-aware applications can report where a person is at any given time. Through a combination of technical analysis and right-to-know requests made through General Data Protection Regulation offices, privacy advocates have found that positioning data is by far the most valuable type of information for potential advertisers. Smaller businesses might want to receive alerts when someone is near their business so that they can send out promotional offers to them.

Governmental organizations may instead want that same information for more sinister reasons. Virtual locations haven’t even been safe from this kind of intrusion. Security expert once attempted to spot chat boxes inside of massive multiplayer games that could be used to recruit potential terror agents. Though this might sound silly to anyone who works outside of the cybersecurity sector, the sheer number of people who play these games have made them an easy target for those who want to purchase or subpoena customer records.

Business planners were understandably concerned about such revelations, since such activity could hurt the prestige of the brands they represented. Only certain individuals at larger organizations are normally aware of such collection procedures, which in turn sometimes leads to interdepartmental rivalries surrounding differing views on what sorts of collection policies are truly ethical.

Dealing with Differences of Opinion

Marketing specialists generally agree that at least some form of data collection is necessary in order to provide basic services that customers rely on. The problem lies in what the exact definition of necessary really is. With the seemingly endless erosion of privacy, some have said that anyone who does business online should just get used t the idea that nothing can ever be truly private. Therefore, any questions regarding responsible data collection have been rendered moot by the invisible hand of the market.

At the other extreme lies the position that the entire hype cycle surrounding personalization technology is probably over and consumers are increasingly likely to respond to conventional broadcast-style advertising techniques where promoters send out the same message to as many people as possible. Both of these two positions probably hold at least some water, especially considering that the market is starting to break into different segments that all have their differing expectation on privacy levels.

Entrepreneurs who want to cater to privacy-conscious consumers may end up as the biggest winners in this fight. They’re in the enviable position of having a ready market carved out for them by competitors who don’t appear to respect their potential consumers anywhere near as much as they do.

Philip Piletic
Techloot
I have several years of experience in marketing and startups, and regularly contribute to a number of online platforms related to technology, marketing and small business. I closely follow how Big Data, Internet of Things, Cloud and other rising technologies grew to shape our everyday lives. Currently working as managing editor for a UK tech site.

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