Data Privacy in the digital world – the “Do not track” movement & humanizing data

Nothing seems to polarise marketers more than the topic of digital data privacy. At one end of the spectrum there’s the “Everybody look at me” Facebook mentality, and at the other the “I delete all cookies regularly” crew.

Personally – nothing springs to mind that I do online that really matters if anyone knows.

But just because nothing I’m doing is “wrong”, that doesn’t stop it being “private”. What I do is my business isn’t it?

I visit Amazon’s recommend page to see what’s on offer, I’m not offended by (tasteful) targeted ads, the worst bit of getting a new laptop is having to remember all my logins and passwords, and I love having a tool at my fingertips that allows me to find any piece of information I want in seconds.  I understand that all these things need to be fed by data and that the data is generated by us, the users.

So surely I want, indeed need, someone, somewhere to be watching and capturing the data generated by my online behaviour, don’t I?

So why do I, like many others, get wound up at the thought that commercial organisations are doing just that and using it to sell stuff to me.  It doesn’t feel right. It grates. It’s just wrong, somehow. And I’ve made a career out of helping companies use their data to inform their marketing activity.

What am I scared of?

Well, they might lose it. But that’s not the main concern. I know they won’t try to, I mean I’ll always advocate more data security policing in many organisations, but that’s not my main concern.

The truth is, I’m scared they might generate some combination of data signals that reveals some personal truth about me that I don’t want them to know.

And I don’t want it to be obvious that they’re using that knowledge when they communicate with me, especially if it’s in a public forum. Think Sky+ linked to your Tesco clubcard, imagine how personalised the ads could be and the impact on conversations in the ad breaks for the X-Factor.

So that’s an issue with my own industry – marketing. We know there is plenty of data out there that to gather and interpret, and a plethora of devices to apply our cleverness to. However, as we get more scientific about our targeting we must be careful that we don’t lose touch with the more human side of our profession. Say the word “data” and everyone thinks we’re dealing in undeniable, undisputable absolutes. We’re not.

We can forget that these signals are generated by human beings. And, however many signals we gather, we will still only be seeing a fraction of their life, so it’s not our right to be too assumptive or aggressive with what we learn.

It’s vital we are up front about what we’re capturing and why, use judgement in how we apply our learnings, and listen to environmental and cultural cues.

We shouldn’t buy data if we don’t know where it comes from, and we should be careful about how we combine different data together.

These aren’t new principles, direct marketers have lived by them for years, but in the new digital world we areawash with data and statisticians and people who can manipulate, analyse and apply it. Maybe it’s time for a gentle reminder that it is a privilege and not a right to have access to someone’s personal data. It shouldn’t be abused, but used with care.

I know that makes me sound very old; the younger generation have no qualms about sharing their every move, wish, whim and desire online. They are not the entire audience, but they are the future, and we need to be careful we don’t further push them into the ‘Don’t track me’ movement by mis-using that which we currently have.

I believe they do expect us to exploit this rich seam of knowledge, but in a way that makes their lives easier, not in a way that just gives companies the right to digitally “shout” at them wherever they are.

If we don’t self regulate and “humanise” ourselves, the small proportion of people that currently turn their cookies off (that we currently pretend don’t exist) may become significantly larger.

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