Information is at the core of the debate around privacy and security. With digital, information is composed of data which represents the facts, figures and raw bits which when processed and analyzed become information. In this sense, privacy and security of data becomes the most important consideration and something that has to be taken into account when thinking about how to take advantage of this trend.
When considered together, data, privacy and security presents itself as a double edged sword – the challenges and benefits come together and can’t easily be separated. Data can be a useful tool that can solve fundamental problems in marketing, help advance science and inform government decision making. In contrast, the necessary surveillance and collection of data can lead to a loss of liberty, less diversity of ideas and security vulnerabilities for criminals due to government backdoors.
The idea of privacy, particularly when it comes to how we access information, plays an important role in allowing individuals to explore and come up with new ideas. Innovation by its nature requires a challenging of the status quo and questioning of conventional wisdom. This can only occur when people can freely research and inquire into new and contradictory information and think of ideas that may not be popular. Privacy, alongside other things such as access is an enabler of the diversity of ideas. A historic precedent for this can be seen with banned books – where attempting to read the ideas in these books may constitute a crime which would require privacy to circumvent.
When privacy is present, people are less likely to self-censor themselves as they are able to act without society or an external entity judging their activity. The extent of self-censorship is hard to quantify, but knowing that every search you make is being collected and analyzed to create a ‘digital profile’ of yourself may lead some people to think before they type. The books you buy, the groups you join and the websites you visit are all contributing to your profile. Worse, in many cases your data profile is being sold off and shared among companies so you don’t know who knows what about you.
Society as we know it needs some levels of privacy to function. If everything about you was transparent and accessible to all then our society will be structured very differently. At the individual level, we show different facets of ourselves depending on the situation and who we are with. We are careful with the details we reveal to our colleagues and much more open with our partners and friends. Having these different faces remain private allows people to go through life with less friction in having to explain and question their actions and thoughts.
At the business and state level, we need a level of privacy in our current economic model which is centered competition. Trade and government secrets have different levels of confidentiality which show that even within an organization some information is private to others. Without this level of privacy, businesses will quickly lose their competitive edge as soon as their intellectual property gets poached by competitors. This may seem good for consumers, but will disincentivize innovation in our current model. At the state level, historic secrets and modern strategies need to remain private in order to ensure national security and prevent other countries gaining an upperhand.
For innovative businesses, privacy can actually become an opportunity in the form of new business models. With seemingly constant data breaches and surveillance scandals in recent years, consumer consciousness about privacy has risen. For many, privacy is becoming a key concern and a matter of human rights. This presents itself as a business opportunity as there is a growing segment of people willing to pay for more private services.
An example of this is the private search engine DuckDuckGo. Their entire unique selling proposition is based on the fact that they don’t track your searches and aggregate your data in the same way that Google does. They claim to offer you anonymity so that you can search the web without having to self-censor or worry about governments or corporations spying on you. Other examples include encrypted messaging app such as Telegram which automatically deletes your account if you’re inactive and encrypts all your messages so they can’t be intercepted. With blockchain, an entire industry in the form of anonymous cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin has risen to help create a decentralized economy where your spending habits can’t be tracked.
Protect your assets – Your company assets are no longer confined to your physical premises. Everything about your company is accessible in digital form and requires just as stringent security as you would onsite. Aspects such as your customer data, software code, trade secrets and strategic vision all constitute digital assets. With a strong cybersecurity program, you can ensure the integrity and protection of your company.
Protect your reputation – Customer data leaks and having your systems compromised can lead to a loss of reputation and trust, reducing your ability to do business in the short and potentially long term. You can be providing tremendous value and be a leader in your space but your customers may not want to take the risk if they feel that their data can be compromised.
Reduce downtime – In some cases, some hackers such as hacktivists simply want to disrupt the activities of a company. This can come in the form of what’s known as DDoS attacks which deny access to a website by flooding it with traffic, causing the service to go down. In other cases, you may find yourself in a situation where you are affected by ransomware which encrypts your data until you pay a fee which could lead to a stalled negotiation process.
Longevity – As cybercrime and war become more prominent, it is necessary for companies to improve their cybersecurity to anticipate the challenges of tomorrow. Everyday, malicious actors are improving their craft to take advantage of individuals and businesses who skimp on cybersecurity. In order to preserve your company well into the future you will need to make as much effort in protection as others are in hacking.
Regulatory compliance – Regulatory directives such as the GDPR are starting to come into place as government officials start to understand the broader effects of privacy and security. Essentially, companies can now face heavy fines for misusing and not securing customer data. Practices such as collecting data without the customers consent can also get you in trouble which is why you see many websites now asking you to opt in to their privacy terms. Understanding the law when it comes to privacy and security can save you on costly legal troubles.
Save costs – The benefits of cybersecurity all feed back into cost savings. There is an initial cost upfront as you implement security programs, but it should pay for itself in the long run. Consider the many ways that you can lose money with compromised cybersecurity:
As mentioned earlier, privacy is a double edged sword. Although there are clear benefits and a strong case for more privacy, the opposite is also true. Less privacy and more transparency can be used for positive outcomes both in business and in society at large. There is a clear advantage of understanding your customer for better marketing, but hidden benefits include scientific advancement, policy making and even personal empowerment.
In marketing, there have been a few fundamental challenges that have been around since the beginning:
The collection, surveillance and brokering of data among companies has created a new marketing paradigm where all this data is available. This allows businesses to find their customer faster and with less marketing waste. Consider the different types of data collected about you and how that can be used by savvy marketers to reach you with their products:
The extent to which individual companies are able to access your entire dataset is unclear, but given the value of this data, we already know companies that have direct access to it are using it to serve you product recommendations. Consider Amazon’s recommended purchases list and Google ads which follow you around the internet. This benefits the consumer as they are able to find the things they need without being exposed to irrelevant advertisements.
The vastness of this data is also an opportunity for you to take advantage of as a business owner. Whether for research purposes or for direct selling, you can utilize platforms such as Facebook and Google which help you hyper target the people who will benefit from your products. These companies are in the business model of using data to help businesses find their customers, so everything they do is optimized towards that.
In the right hands and when used correctly, the vast quantities of data collected about us can be used for causes that benefit society. This can come in the form of scientific advancement where data can add to the robustness of the humanities and also as a means to help with government policy. For instance, if we collected data about everybody’s food intake and exercise routine through various tracking apps, we could manipulate that data to better inform how to improve public health. This is just one example but the applications are numerous: understanding the psychology of criminals, public sentiment and social trends are a few other benefits.
As well as businesses and government using the data, individuals could use their personal and collective data to better understand themselves and make better decisions. Imagine being given all your personal data and your ‘digital profile’, alongside the tools that you can use to make sense of it. You could garner a deep understanding of your psychology and who you are to make better decisions and live a happier life. Having access to other data sets which would be anonymized can also help you understand what’s happening in the world around you in the same way businesses and governments do.
A potential future of less privacy would mean that there would be more transparency. Where possible, this transparency would likely be extended to businesses and governments which can lead to greater accountability and less abuse of power. Arguably, we are already seeing this transition at the consumer level where individuals are becoming more open with what they share – often revealing intricate details about their lives on public platforms such as twitter. On the one hand, privacy can lead to self-censorship. On the other, it can lead to a culture of radical transparency and honesty.
The argument for cybersecurity is clear: there are clear benefits that should be considered essential when it comes to the survival and longevity of your business. With privacy, the benefits extend to both sides of the debate with a strong case being made for both less and more privacy. Likely, there will need to be a balance struck between people controlling their data and that data being accessible to others for the various benefits it can provide. Greater public transparency for our institutions can also reduce the risk of potential abuse from surveillance as everybody will be more informed.
Stefan Soellner is an expert in scaling for companies, experienced consultant for business model and product innovation, and coach in the field of innovation management.