Frank Hayes over at Storefront Backtalk asks “When Is Data Collection Creepy?” That’s a really good question now that ordinary people are waking up to the possibility that anyone and everyone can track them online and in real life. The post touches on but doesn’t quite illuminate that the biggest difference is one of atoms versus bits. When surveillance was physical Newtonian physics limited what could be done. We didn’t need laws or policies stating that you couldn’t surveil all of the people all of the time because to do so wasn’t physically possible. Because we have never had that capability before, we do not have any experience with it from a policy-making standpoint.
Having always been constrained along that boundary by what was possible, it was difficult to overstep the line of what was ethical. Today we have the reverse. The line of possibility has withdrawn so far that it no longer constrains us from crossing the line of what is ethical. But we are so unused to having to exercise self-restraint along this boundary that many are not recognizing the ethical line when they cross it. Many are in fact treating it like a land rush, grabbing all the territory between the ethical line and the possible line before policy and legislation can step in to claim it.
The comment in the article that “They’re worried about our use of data, but they’re pissed if I don’t deliver relevance” doesn’t address that the worries are a moving target. The lines where worry begins to set in and where relevance is important are different. When the relevance line precedes the worry line, as it has since the beginning of digital time, relevance is king. But now that people are beginning to realize how invasive and how slimy tracking has become, the worry line is moving to the fore.
If industry wishes to gain consumer trust there are a number of simple strategies available but which industry has heretofore avoided like the plague. For starters, make the data available to the target of the surveillance. We are starting to see some stores discontinue loyalty programs due to customer privacy concerns. I’m not aware of any who tried making that data available to the consumer. Why not? Consider the example of online banking where customers are begging providers “please, keep more data about me because this history doesn’t go back far enough.” If you run a store loyalty program, what would you give to have customers begging you to collect and store more of their data? What would you give to transform your program a valuable brand asset that lived up to the name by inspiring true loyalty among customers? If you answered “I’d give them their data” then you win.
I’m also not aware of anyone pushing to treat customer data like credit data. At least credit data is protected by laws which guarantee consumers access to review and contest their data, and provides controls on what can be done with it. That’s not just a quaint reminder of how disciplined we used to be, it’s a model for trust. (Admittedly not a very good one but light years better than what we have with other types of data.) Acxiom has planted a flag in this territory by opening up its database so you can see your own data and correct it. It’s a start. When they create an API to give users integrated access to that data, the service moves from merely interesting to truly compelling.
In short, the biggest problem isn’t the tension between relevance versus creepy. It’s the colossal short-sightedness of believing that personal data is owned by the people who collect it and that the targets of such surveillance have no stake in it. If you want trust you have to earn it and the best way to do that is first to grant it. The good news is that the folks at Project VRM and groups like the Respect Network and Customer Commons exist to help companies do just that. Contact them or do it on your own but either way start thinking about becoming stewards of data rather than owners and exploiters of it and you are on the right track.