Digital Intimacy and the Price of Privacy

apple spring forward

Apple’s ‘Spring Forward’ event was clearly a significant moment for wearable technology, given the advances in design and engineering, together with the spectacle of gold MacBooks and $10,000 watches.

But alongside the most covetable of innovations was a more discreet yet important message: the world’s most valuable company made some clear commitments which will shape how their new devices operate in the lives of consumers.

Before the big reveal, Tim Cook made statements relating to the use of personal data from the Apple Watch:

Apple will not see your data

You decide whether to participate

It’s a fairly unambiguous commitment to the preservation of privacy, significant as technology enters the intimate realm of biometric data; a necessary reassurance that customers will remain in control.

Part of what you pay for in Apple products, it seems, alongside anointed forms caressed into existence by the reassuring, paternalistic tones of Jony Ive, is a guarantee that your personal data remains within your control. What you disclose is your prerogative, selecting whether a particular service merits the sharing of data.

Now that Apple have made this choice a visible component of their service proposition other companies using data may start to face closer scrutiny. It’s time that brands start preparing to negotiate this landscape of privacy and personal data: in this new service dimension there is opportunity to gain competitive edge.

Privacy vs. personalised service

The value of data privacy is apparent against a long-term trend towards reduced privacy, fuelled by many of the data-driven services we already recognise.

Google were asked recently by the UK government to clarify their privacy policy because it was ‘too vague’. Specifically, the rules about how they combine data from different services: Android, Gmail, Chrome, YouTube. Yet this is arguably what makes Google so useful, benefits increasing apparent in the intelligent, context-sensitive use of cards in Google Now.

Brand partnerships are developing, so if Google knows you travelled to a new location in the morning, then Hailo will be able to suggest taxi booking at 5pm, just as you might be ready to leave.

Useful yes, but on the flipside of transport and location technology, we’ve heard horror stories relating to abuse of Uber’s ‘God view’. Most people are freaked out by the idea of their location being tracked; this instance of data and privacy is relatively easy for people to grasp. What’s saying people won’t choose to pay a premium for location privacy in future?

Shifts in consumer apathy

At present businesses are relatively free to act first, apologise later. Consumer understanding of data and privacy is uneven across demographics and across categories: the commonplace is that people don’t care. At the very least people aren’t in the habit of factoring data privacy into their choice of taxi.

But the groundwork of a privacy industry is already laid, visible in a niche but growing interest in alternative services. Use of anonymised search and browsing,  through services like Duck Duck Go and Tor, is rising steadily. Recently Safari and Firefox integrated Duck Duck Go into their browsers; they have a vested interest in providing an alternative to Google.

Elsewhere one of the long-standing but quiet strengths of WhatsApp, which encrypts messages and has a light approach to user data, shows what we might think of as ‘privacy by design’ working at scale. It’s easy to forget that people do pay a nominal fee each year for the app. As Andrew Lewis memorably put it: “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”.

Millennial management of privacy

The younger generation are more data savvy and aware of the value exchange taking place when they hand over personal information. In the case of Google, they may decide recommendations from a service like Google Now, based on location data and joined up browsing through a logged in Chrome browser, are worth it.

Any unscrupulous manoeuvres from businesses collecting data, however, will be exposed fast by a generation fluent in online activism, generating preference for more discreet, contained experiences where data doesn’t drift haphazardly into the ether.

It’s likely we’ll see privacy management emerge as a service in itself. For millennials accustomed to Zoella-esque broadcasting of their every move, reputational management could arise as a pressing need: going back through archives of tweets to tweak and adjust.

For everyone who happily hands over health metrics, browsing history, location and likes, there will be those whose preference is to maintain a level of privacy, security, a lingering sense of enigmatic glamour perhaps; people who will be more than willing to pay for the increasingly rarefied luxury of going incognito.

Until that moment, brands should consider three things:

– Look at the drivers of trust in your category and anticipate how these might shift as privacy concerns become more acute.

– Identify current contradictions between honest, customer-centric service and more cynical use of personal data for activities like aggressive retargeting. Seek to reconcile this tension by altering service design or improving transparency.

– Consider whether customers might be open to paying a premium for privacy as part of your service, as part of a tiered offering perhaps, for those who believe the benefits offered in return for shared data do not outweigh the potential downside.


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