It’s Decision Time for Data Privacy (or Will Be Soon)

Chet Dalzell’s recent thoughtful piece on “Our Digital Selves” came along at the same time I (and probably a gazillion others) were pondering the increasingly pressing question of data privacy in the digital age.

Chet Dalzell’s recent thoughtful piece on “Our Digital Selves” came along at the same time I (and probably a gazillion others) were pondering the increasingly pressing question of data privacy in the digital age.

It’s a much bigger question than what data can be used to target potential customers for the latest widget or widget club or to stop you in your tracks at the supermarket in front of the pet food shelves to tell you that Fido, your beloved Fido, seen in the picture on your cell phone, absolutely must have the new, nutritious and tasty Dogbit,s or he may bite your fingers off if you try to give him anything else.

The data question goes to the heart of how we see ourselves in the digital world. And how we see ourselves is in no way clear — even to ourselves.

“Bottom line: If Facebook’s users in the United States are similar to most Americans (and studies suggest they are), large majorities don’t want personalized ads — and when they learn how companies find out information about them, even greater percentages don’t want them.”

That’s what Joseph Turow, a professor of communications and Chris Jay Hoofnagle, an adjunct professor of law, say in The New York Times using various research to support their thesis. The problem is what people tell researchers is not always what they do. Facebook’s quarterly earnings statement showed these enlightening KPIs.

  • Monthly active users (MAUs) — MAUs were 2.32 billion as of Dec. 31, 2018, an increase of 9%, year-over-year.
  • We estimate that around 2.7 billion people now use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger (our “Family” of services) each month, and more than 2 billion people use at least one of our Family of services every day, on average.

It has been said over and over again that everything has its price. Assuming that this is largely true, how much value or benefit should the consumer expect in return for how much and which data? As I wrote in a comment to Chet’s article, this is sure to be the data-use question we’ll all be turning in our minds as the algorithms get smarter and the temptations greater.

Imagine that you could put a value on each element of your personal, demographic, psychographic and behavioral data, and anyone wanting to use that data would have to pay your price, whether or not you ended up making a purchase or taking a desired action? Imagine further that a data user wanted to use $20 worth of your data to try to sell you a product you wanted, priced at $100? It would be an easy transaction, if the seller were willing to offer you a 20% or even a greater discount for the specific permission to use the data. You would have the product, the seller would have the sale and everyone would be happy.

However fanciful that scenario, it is not nearly as crazy as it sounds. In fact, in one form or another, that is exactly what is happening in the real marketplace; although without your specific permission. As a marketer, I have to spend money to acquire your data and, by making an attractive offer (say a 20% discount), I am offering to compensate you for your data, which allows me to talk to you.

Of course, I have over-simplified the argument. As stated earlier: How much value or benefit should the consumer expect in return for how much and which data?

I think we would all agree that this determination is much too complicated, so we let the “invisible hand of the market” do its magic. Which reduces the decision to a very simple one: Do we perceive that we get enough value from having our data out there in the marketplace to be manipulated however the marketers wish to and simply lie back and enjoy all the offers and benefits? Or should we bite the bullet, give our cell phones to a needy child, do without Waze and get lost again and again, be prepared to stand in the endless line at the bank, throw the “delete everything” switch and effectively remove ourselves from the digital economy? It is getting near decision time for all of us.

I remember many years ago in London, as “one of those Americans,” being lectured over lunch by a very traditional British publisher about the horrors of books being sold by mail order and direct mail and assuring me that the British wouldn’t have anything to do with book clubs or the like. Just when the bill had been paid and we were preparing to depart, she reached into her handbag and pulled out an all singing and all dancing mailing piece from the Readers Digest, offering a very handsome discount on their superb motorist bible, the “Book of the Road.”

She was going to order it right away.