The State of Privacy, Pt. 2: Privacy vs. Sociableness

Posted on 28. Aug, 2013 by in Customer Research, Marketing Strategy

In my last post I described the fervor with which the European Union is cracking down on the ‘observation’ of consumers by organizations who are building profiles of consumers’ behavior, browsing habits and shopping routines – both online and off.  New, proposed legislation, the Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, aims to limit some activities and thus “rebalance the relationship between the individual and the internet”.

While the Regulation is causing much controversy and discussion in Europe, remarkably on ‘our side of the pond’ very little energy is being directed at the underlying problems.  Instead, Washington seems content to wait for industry self-regulation.  More distressing, however, is Americans’ personal apathy toward the whole issue; a disregard, naiveté, or ambivalence towards allowing their personal lives to be viewed and be accessible on the social media.  Americans, when divided into generations, no doubt differ in their attitudes toward and comfort with ‘living on the internet’.  The youngest generations (the Millennials and today’s Gen Z, also labeled the “i-Generation”) are likely most comfortable/disregardful of living in cyberspace.  These generations just can’t seem to get enough Internet visibility; exposing everything about themselves and their behavior with wanton candidness.

The Two Faces of Internet-Interactivity

And so we arrive at a conundrum opposing personal privacy (limited or controlled ‘invisibility’) with online conspicuousness (‘internet exhibitionism’).  As marketers we understand the benefits to our customers (and to our bottom-line) of them sharing personal facts and behaviors with us.  Perhaps our only obligation (as businesspeople) is to deliver on our implicit promise by offering them better servicing and providing them unique benefits as the result of knowing more about them.  But, on the other hand, as responsible citizens, another concern comes to mind; that of providing for the safety and security of our society’s ‘innocents’.

And so ultimately, if not our Government, our Corporations will need to consider the rights individuals should have in this new information age.  Indeed, there is a real difference between customers knowingly entrusting information with a corporation for a specific purpose; and the same corporation (or a third party) surreptitiously ‘observing’ and recording customers’ behavior through devices whose electronic capabilities most Americans are still unaware.  Specifically, GPS-enabled devices.  And GPS technology is no longer limited to Smartphones.  Today cameras, cars, athletic equipment (to name just a few), can all beam user and usage information to any monitoring company.

Nowhere is the potential conflict between volunteerism and voyeurism more apparent than in the category of geolocation services.  Foursquare, a leading geolocation app, offers benefits to both customers and retailers.  If you’re keen on “checking in” with Foursquare as you arrive at your favorite restaurant, you should recognize you are broadcasting your behavior (and present location) to others; your Foursquare “Friends”.  You may take some comfort in knowing you have to manually check in, to be so identified.  But, once you do, there you are in cyberspace and conspicuously ‘on the grid’.

Most of these issues require balancing benefits against real and potential costs/risks.  But responsible and thoughtful usage will be rewarded with long-term success and a minimization of problems and abuse.  This won’t be an easy learning process for most consumers and the potential for loss, damage or injury looms ‘along the way’.

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