In this age of technology and the Internet of Things (IoT), data and customer information has grown, and become more detailed and far easier to access. Shops and businesses ask for email addresses and birth dates promising (and giving) rewards and we hand them over without a second thought. But as more data is collected about customers, there are more worries about the possibility that data may be used against them.
Businesses and organizations are used to a free-for-all access to customer data—anytime, anywhere, no questions asked. Data is seen and used to improve decisions, customer experiences, business processes and even to identify the competition. But the big-data mine is beginning to be seen in unflattering ways. In a study run by EY, 78 percent of responders stated that they believed their personal information enabled companies to make more money. Along with this, major privacy concerns have risen.
Every time you post on social media, use an app on your phone or click on a website, data is collected from you for future use by businesses. Even more recently, brick-and-mortar shops have begun to use intelligent video analytics to mine data such as shopping behaviors and facial reactions. However, many can find these kinds of data mining invasive, unethical and even creepy.
But data mining doesn’t only have negative effects. Kord Davis, a former analyst with Cap Gemini and the author of Ethics of Big Data said, “The opportunities that big data offer to impact social, cultural, political change in our lives are promising. There are lots of people who are very excited about it.” And with good reason. Big data collection has given customers that specialized, just-for-you experience that all shoppers enjoy. A special gift on your birthday, a personalized shopping list for your anniversary. Online chatter can be turned into a behavioral pattern that companies show has worth and therefore makes it valuable to them. Through this, they can then make better business decisions ensure that all your wants and needs are met exactly as you would prefer. These decisions can make shopping easier, faster, and more relaxed, and can even give insight into what changes to products need to be made to make customers happier.
But just as big-data mining isn’t going to end, the struggle with its ethics also doesn’t seem like it is going to end. Still, governments have started to investigate privacy concerns, forcing a conversation between the public and businesses from a legal standpoint. Finding a moral and ethical compass to use as a guide will be tough, however, as what some will find intrusive, others won’t, and vice versa. There is a possibility for greater regulations to be implemented, however. Davis has advocated for a continual discussion on what the rules should be regarding data collection. He believes it is important for legislators, businesses and consumers to agree on rules regarding privacy, ownership, identity and reputation—from a business perspective.
Such an agreement may not come for some time, but transparency has become the most current call for action. Google itself was recently called on to be more transparent with how they collect their data, with the threat of antitrust legislation being floated. Companies who are transparent about how and why they collect customer information will find it easier to maintain customer trust. Mike Zaneis, chief counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said, “People are always willing to trade privacy and information when they see the direct value of sharing that information.” Stores that offer loyalty cards or frequent-flier programs that offer deals based on past purchases are more readily signed up for than companies that don’t state why they need your Facebook information.
Although legal action may not end the use of customer data for some time, we are seeing some positive changes. Companies that give consumers more insight into and control over how their information is used may actually begin to differentiate themselves from the competition. In the end, this is only proof that digging into what your customers want and need isn’t an altogether bad thing, and it isn’t going away. As Davis has suggested, opening the conversation between the public and businesses is the first step to finding common ground to appease both sides in a battle over something that won’t be going away, ever.
Rick Delgado is a technology commentator and freelance writer.
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