Data Privacy: Who Draws the Line?

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ImageGovernments, privacy advocates, companies large and small, and private citizens all have an opinion on what, where, and how private data should be collected, stored, used, and shared.  It is a complicated problem that leads to more questions as technology evolves.

The latest complication is target marketing and predictive analytics.  Targeted marketing has been around for a few years now.  The process of displaying ads to users based on historical browsing patterns.  However, when predictive analytics is mixed into the game, the ads theoretically become more relevant based on a user’s browsing history and a number of profiles that have been setup to match possible interests with displayed browsing patterns.  The data is collected via cookies placed on a user’s device.

Soat discusses that while predictive analytics can be helpful and even valuable, they do have the danger of getting ahead of the data and making predictions that are not specifically supported by data findings.  The quantity of data being collected today even extends beyond direct browsing behavior but can also include online discussions and offline purchases.  Organizations are becoming very sophisticated in how they gather, aggregate, and organize data, all of this in an attempt to market more effectively and sell more directly to consumers.

Why is this type of data gathering detrimental to consumers?  How does this accumulation of data and the use of predictive analytics and targeted marketing harm society?  How does this data gathering affect a person’s privacy and rights to control what is shared, sold, used, or even gathered?

Data privacy is very important for obvious reasons.  People do not want their browsing history made public for any number of reasons but even from a strictly marketing perspective, this kind of data can have consequences.  Targeted advertising and predictive analytics can open entirely new forms of advertising and selling offering specific promotions to individuals that can include customized pricing online that isn’t available to everyone.  It can include special mortgage rates to one family based on the types of online activity they and others who also meet a developed profile practice.  It could (if taken to an extreme) add meta-information to a company database that could lead to denial of insurance coverage because a family member searched for diabetes treatment options.   Imagine if a healthy family of four was denied coverage because their teenager was performing research for a science project on Diabetes or some other disease?  Farfetched scenario?  Decisions like this could be closer than you think. Soat tells us that even though there are rules stating some practices are forbidden, some companies can get very creative in getting around established regulations.  These are just some examples of where user’s privacy rights must be maintained and why it is important for consumers to understand not only how organizations use their data but how they can understand what is being used, how it is used, and how they can protect their data.

Any reputable organization will have a privacy policy on their website or as a part of their mobile applications.  This policy should describe how they gather data and what types of data are being gathered.  If a user is fortunate, the privacy policy will also include topics around affiliate and third party usage of data gathered but that kind of disclosure is not required everywhere.  Even when various topics are disclosed or included in a privacy policy, every day users quite possibly lack the time and interest in reading a multi-page document that is filled with legal jargon.  When it comes down to it, the user is responsible for their own activity and should read these policies before using an organizations apps or web tools.  However there are two big steps that could be taken by data users that would make consumer privacy concerns less stressful.  Organizations should make more of an effort to simplify their policies to make them easier to read and understand by end users, less legal jargon and more straight talk.  Organizations should also do a better job at getting together and stating clear lines of data usage.  Clarify their boundaries of how data will be used and be very clear where those lines lie.   We as consumers can help in this process.  Consumers are not powerless, they can put pressure on organizations through social campaigns, email blasts back to our vendors or choice, even not buying products they sell, all to make a statement of how consumers want privacy concerns to be addressed and resolved.

Right now, it is a matter of people educating themselves and taking the time necessary to read policies and understand the uses of their data.  They then must make the decision of if they are comfortable with the possible risk.  It’s going to take a societal change to make a dramatic impact but it can be done.  Organizations need to be transparent in their use of consumer data and people need to be aware of how their data affects the way organizations seem them.  Let’s all help draw the lines sharing responsibility and accountability.

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