In 2020, fewer things are more important to the success of a tech company than a commitment to privacy.
The honeymoon stage of our relationship with tech is, for all intents and purposes, over.
Events like the Equifax data breach and Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal have been flashbulb moments in our collective consciousness.
They’ve served as a wakeup call to business leaders, legislators, and the public at large.
A 2018 report done by SAS revealed that 67% of American consumers believe the government should do more to secure data privacy and that 66% of consumers have taken steps to secure their own data.
Not to mention, a 2017 Pew Research study showed that nearly half of all Americans believe that their data is less secure today than it was five years ago.
The message is clear: privacy must be a priority.
A Lay of The Land
Before getting into the weeds about privacy, it’s important to understand the context in which these discussions take place.
In 1974, Congress adopted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a law that established privacy and protection requirements for student records across the country. The law was a landmark for vigilance in privacy rights.
Then in 1996, Congress passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, more commonly referred to as HIPAA. It was a law that eventually led to the first ever adoption of national standards in regards to privacy rules in the medical field.
Thanks to progressive reforms like these, American citizens now enjoy protections in the classroom, the doctor’s office, and even when they’re incarcerated.
These laws showed us that it’s possible to set ideological differences aside and pass legislation that benefits all Americans — regardless of gender identity, social class, or ethnicity.
These laws display representative democracy at its best.
Then came the digital revolution…
The Great Tech Conundrum
The modern technological landscape is as fascinating as it is confounding.
We use software that connects us with friends from high school and business partners around the globe. We show everybody we know photos of our Halloween costumes or of our newborn children. We enjoy high-speed entertainment and we can open our phone and find a date within minutes.
And we’re able to do these things all without ever having to enter our credit card information.
How this is possible is not a new revelation. Technology companies have essentially become advertisement firms.
There’s no better example of this than Google.
In the second quarter of 2019, only 16% of Google’s $38.9B in revenue came from the company’s “other revenues” category. This includes the Play Store, Google Home, Google Pixel, and cloud revenue.
All of it only makes up a fraction of Google’s empire.
Nearly 80% of all Google’s revenues in Q2 of 2019 came from advertising.
All the data related to your location, your lifestyle, and your interests is incredibly valuable. Handing this information to advertisers is how technology companies have been able to scale and rake in profits.
Which puts the entire industry in a bit of a predicament…
Data collection has become tied to the tech industry’s business model.
It also raises an important question: how do you protect consumer data, remain profitable, and avoid making headlines for all the wrong reasons?
Here’s what we’ve learned.
Walking the Line
It’s possible to guard consumer data and return profits for shareholders. It just requires some diligence.
- Privacy as a part of company culture
This one doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. Make sure everybody in your company — everybody from the C-Suite executives to the summer interns — understands the importance of privacy.
The industry has reached an inflection point.
Privacy is on our minds now more than ever. The information companies have access to represents a lot more than trends in consumer preferences or click-through rates.
What we’re dealing with is people’s livelihoods.
Making the importance of this responsibility clear to everybody in the company is the first and arguably most important step to keeping the organization on the straight and narrow.
- Make sure your data collection is motivated
Tech companies are fully aware that data collection is their stock-in-trade. They understand more than anyone that their path to profitability is contingent on supplying advertisers with relevant consumer information.
This has put technology companies in a place where they are gathering any and everything they can — even if it’s not clear how the information will be used.
Time of day users are logging on? Sure. Which apps they are using? Couldn’t hurt. How often do they refresh the page? Go for it.
Figure out exactly what information you need, what information you don’t need, and cut the excess.
The more data there is, the harder it is to keep track of it.
- Communication is key
Oftentimes, companies get so big and scale so fast, it becomes near-impossible to keep the privacy team in the loop.
Founders and decision makers get so preoccupied with business development, recruitment, investor meetings, and the other million things they have to worry about, they often forget to loop the privacy team in.
It becomes the age old issue where the right and left hands are up to different things.
Make sure the privacy team has a seat at the table for every meeting. Run new ideas and development by them before starting. Make sure they are constantly evaluating the privacy policies in place.
Too many data breaches occur not because a firm is run by incompetent people, but because communication can easily break down when companies get to a certain size.
The onus of data protection has fallen on us — those within the industry. Being able to secure consumer data is not just a matter of profitability or public image, it’s one of morality.