Do you share information digitally, with other people or with companies, in your personal or professional life? Then you’re in the data business.
That may come as a surprise to anyone who doesn’t work in Silicon Valley, or even in the tech field. The millions of people in manufacturing, healthcare, or education may not think they’re in the data business. But they are—we all are. The emergence of the Internet of Things and “Big Data” has blurred the line between being connected and offline in almost every way imaginable. Home and work lives overlap, industry borders are complicated, and the distinction between being a customer and a supplier is the most fluid it’s been. In fact, that line may no longer exist at all.
Is Big Data really such a big deal?
Now, “Big Data” sounds scary. But the truth is, because we all have a hand in creating and distributing it, we share both control and responsibility. The first step to harnessing that control and taking that responsibility is being aware. Data sharing and analysis can bring great benefit, and not just to businesses. Realizing benefits, however, and guarding against attendant risks requires that we acknowledge our parts. Only then can we create ways to keep ourselves safe, prepare for and combat worst-case scenarios, and, most importantly, positively contribute to the ecosystem in which we all operate.
I won’t pretend covering these bases is easy, or fast. It is, however, possible, and the first step—knowing how to keep ourselves safe—begins with trust.
Trust is currency. Without it, the data economy, the very basis of how we communicate and how commerce happens today, would grind to a halt. Companies must earn it, and customers must bestow it wisely. So since we’re all customers, consumer trust seems the best place to begin, by asking: How do we know who to trust with our data? And how much responsibility do we—or should we—bear for ensuring that data stays private, secure, and within our individual control?
Trust is the epicenter
Deciding whether or not to share personal information—name and address, credit card number, email—with a retailer, for instance, is usually where conversations about consumer trust begin. But sharing information is actually step two. Understanding that you have a choice comes first, and we as consumers often skip right past this consideration. You do not necessarily have to trade personal information to use online services. The amount and type of information an online retailer or social media platform requires you to share—and how transparent they are about that requirement—in order to make a purchase or use their service is your first indication of how trustworthy they are.
At the same time, companies need to realize their most valuable asset is their trustworthiness. Regaining lost brand credibility is difficult at best, often impossible, and at the very least incredibly costly. How much doubt are you as a company willing to risk inviting in order to gather information about your customers? Who will benefit most from the data you collect? What will you do if that data is compromised, or if your practices are called into question?
If we return to the advance of the IoT and the increasing number and types of connected devices—from watches to refrigerators to family cars—it’s plain to see how easily questions of trust become more complex. Not only can we produce new devices and apps more and more quickly, they’re happening further and further from true tech. What then gets thrown into relief is companies’ and customers’ intent. Did I as a fitness tracker user intend for my average heart rate data to be exposed in the cloud and stored indefinitely, just so I could improve my health? Did I as a doll manufacturer intend when adding a recording feature, to capture and store minors’ private conversations without parental consent, just to deliver a personalized experience for kids?
Are more laws the answer?
Of course we need ways to hold businesses and individuals accountable, but we simply can’t implement laws quickly enough to keep up with tech changes. Further, laws that are rushed through can have unintended, unpredictable consequences. Most important, though, is that even the most thoughtful legislation won’t address the core issue here: awareness. But being aware that you’re in the data business isn’t enough—you need to be aware of what to do about that, and why. If we as vendors and consumers can influence more people to acknowledge and grasp this principle, we can then, for instance, write and enact standards and best practices, such as those I’ve been part of creating with the Online Trust Alliance. Then we’ll have actual criteria for deciding (when we’re consumers) who deserves our trust, and (when we’re businesses) whether or not we’re earning it.
I look forward to sharing in upcoming posts more specific guidelines for consumers and companies to follow in making crucial purchasing, data-sharing, and business decisions in the IoT.