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Managing Data in a Post-Privacy World

Because of privacy concerns, there is a new demand for services that empower consumers to take control of their data.

It’s no secret that when companies provide services, they collect vast troves of consumer data in exchange, and then occasionally sell that data to marketers. Consumers are becoming increasingly more aware and wary of this practice and how their data is being used, and of how vulnerable their personal communications are, particularly with regard to meta-data. Serious concerns have arisen over several issues including these: predatory ad targeting, wherein Target used data to figure out that a teenage girl was pregnant before her own father knew; digital ownership rights, when Instagram stoked fears in January 2013 with a terms-of-service update about how images could be used without permission; and the recent National Security Agency (NSA) leaks that made international headlines.

Because of these privacy concerns, there is a new demand for services that empower consumers to take control of their data. Amid these fears, the meteoric rise of Snapchat is no surprise. Wickr, another self-destructing messaging app for those more serious about security, uses military-grade encryption for texts, pictures, audio, video, and PDFs. These services don’t leave a trail—a conscious action to limit the amount of personal data made available to would-be identity thieves or industrial espionage.Even public social networks are recognizing the desire for privacy, with both Twitter and Instagram rolling out private messaging functions.

One solution to fears about privacy and data is educating consumers about what is being collected—and how. Different tools have emerged to help individuals understand how their personal data is being used. Privacyscore helps individuals understand how different websites use data. WolframAlpha helps individuals visualize vast quantities of social data about themselves, and Mozilla has proposed icons that would create a common set of symbols to indicate how websites use data. British Telecommunications offers users a sliding scale of choices with a clear explanation of the value exchange taking place.

Beyond education on how data is gathered, other services are showing consumers exactly what data has been collected on them. For example, Acxiom, an enterprise data, analytics, and software-as-a-service company, recently introduced an online tool that lets consumers view, correct, and delete personal data that has been assembled by the company. Consumers can also choose to opt-out of data collection. But if consumers opt-out, Acxiom warns that future ads will not be personalized, and thus not relevant to their interests.

New services also allow consumers to take control over how their data is sold. Consumers don’t feel particularly comfortable with companies collecting and reselling their data without their knowledge. But if companies can communicate a clear value exchange between the data and a user’s personal benefit—like financial compensation or personalized services—consumers are more likely to accept the practice. Reputation.com calls itself a data privacy vault: the vault stores consumers’ data and collects their marketing preferences, and then gives consumers the option to share the data with select marketers. By sharing data with only selected marketers, consumers receive a combination of special perks and more relevant advertisements.

This issue over ownership of data goes all the way to the top, with entire countries now fighting to protect their citizens’ data and the valuable income it generates. Countries want to maintain these rights for two reasons: so other countries can’t infringe upon their data (which is akin to their territory) and so they can keep any profits made from the resale of that data in the local economy.

After allegations surfaced in 2013 that the NSA targeted Brazilian users, the Brazilian government began pushing to create legislation that would require Internet companies like Facebook and Google to store all data relating to Brazilian citizens in Brazil—in data centers that would make companies answerable to local privacy rules and other Brazilian laws.

With regard to the revenue generated, France, Spain, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have all opened legal cases against Google for the way it stores and tracks user information. At issue is Google’s new approach to user data, in which it consolidates its 60 privacy policies and combines data collected on individual users across its services. It gives users no means to opt out.

–JS & AW.