Privacy in the Age of Big Data

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

Consumers reveal more than ever before consciously through social media and, just as importantly, unconsciously through their behaviors. This data gives marketers great power, which they can use to design better products, hone messages and, most importantly, sell more by providing consumers what they want. That’s all good from a marketer’s perspective, but for consumers, the scope of data collection can often cross a line, becoming too intrusive or too loosely held. Marketers have to balance the opportunities of Big Data with the concerns of consumers or they risk a serious backlash.

For some people, the line has already been crossed. When Edward Snowden revealed information about the government’s data collection policies, he presented it as a scandal. But, in many ways, what the NSA does differs mainly in scope from what many private marketers do. A German politician recently went to court to force T-Mobile to release the full amount of metadata that it collects from his cellphone behavior. The results highlighted just how much a company can know from this data—not just about an individual’s behavior and interests, but also about his or her friends, and whom among them are most influential. Even for marketers who strongly believe in the social utility that this enables, it highlights just how core an issue privacy has become.

So how can marketers get the most from data without alarming consumers? Transparency and value. For some consumers, there’s really no good use of personal data, so opt-outs have to be clear and easy to use. The best way to collect and use data is if the value to the consumer is so clear that he or she will opt in to a program.

One company that has framed its data collection as a service that’s worth joining is Waze, which Google recently bought for over a billion dollars. Google beat out rivals Facebook and Apple because high-quality maps are one of the most important infrastructure tools for the big mobile players. Well, before Google bought the company, CEO David Bardin said, “Waze relies on the wisdom of crowds: We haven’t spent billions of dollars a year, we’ve cooperated with millions of users. Google is the No. 1 player. But, a few years out, there’s no excuse that we wouldn’t pass them.”

Drivers sign up for the app to find out about traffic conditions ahead; inherently useful information. Once they’re logged in, they automatically send information about their speed and location to Waze. Waze invites active participation, too, encouraging users to fix map errors and report accidents, weather disruptions, police and gas stations. Users get points for using the service and more points for actively reporting issues. With 50 million users, this decentralized data entry system is incredibly efficient at producing real-time road conditions and maps. Even Google’s own map service can’t match the refresh speed of Waze maps.

Points for check-ins don’t fully explain why people are so invested in Waze. Dynamic graphics help, with charming icons and those de rigueur 3D zooming maps. Even more important than a great interface, however, is that Waze serves a real-time need while making users feel part of a community working together to solve problems. Waze is part of a broader movement to crowdsource solutions that rely on consumers or investors who believe in the mission of a company, not just its utility. People contribute to Waze because they want to help fellow travelers, as well as speed their own journeys. It’s shared self-interest.

Waze has a relatively easy task of proving the worth of a data exchange. Other companies need to work harder to show that they use data to enhance user experiences—but the extra effort is not optional.

As marketers become better at using data, they will need to prove the value of the data they use, and they need to be transparent on how they’re using it. If they don’t, marketers will have their own Snowdens to worry about.