July 30, 2013
As seen on Forbes
The news that the NSA has been secretly gathering and analyzing data about U.S. citizens has raised serious concerns about privacy, and rightly so. But so far the conversation has only focused on a part of the problem—that the NSA has not been transparent with consumers about what data they collect and how they collect it. This lack of transparency has layers of repercussions for an industry that’s already been searching for ways to increase consumer comfort with data usage meant to better target advertising.
That’s why the NSA news is so problematic. Indeed, consumer fear that information shared online with a technology company will wind up in the hands of the NSA creates an even more challenging operating environment for technology companies. While the NSA has an important role to play in our national security, it can’t come at the expense of technological advancement and innovation. Fear of NSA spying could curtail tech innovation, and that’s why it’s time for the NSA to be transparent about what data they collect and how they collect it, and allow data to continue fueling technological innovation—not consumer insecurity.
Think of the countless benefits connectivity and access to data have already brought to daily life, from instant communication with anyone, anywhere, to the ability to tap into seemingly limitless content and services right from the phones in our pockets. Now think of how much more is still to come, and how much we stand to lose if we are forced to continue living in fear of domestic spying.
Consider the expanding role of data and connectivity in daily life. Not long ago, your entire “connected” lifestyle revolved around a single item: the computer on your desk. Then came smartphones, then tablets, and before you knew it, even connected eyeglasses. As we speak, the latest version of Apple’s iOS operating system is being integrated into cars, from Hondas and Chevrolets, to Ferraris and Mercedes. As the “Internet of Everything” continues to evolve, everything from your refrigerator to the sneakers on your feet will be moving online as well. They’ll gather data about how you use them, and then feed it back to you in helpful ways: reminding you to pick up milk, updating the total mileage you’ve run this week, where you should spend your next vacation, etc..
That’s a lot of points of connection—and a lot of items that should be able to talk to each other. That way, you can look up a map on your laptop, and then have it show up automatically on your smartphone or the dashboard of your car. You can start reading an e-book on one device, then switch to another and resume where you left off. Every song or movie you buy can be downloaded automatically to your laptop, tablet, and connected TV. You can carry on a single conversation via text, photo, and group video messages, even as you move across desktop, Android, and iOS devices. Your home appliances can deliver usage information to your laptop to help you save power and maintain them better. As consumer technologies share information, your experience becomes more seamless, efficient, and productive.
The data that you generate through your connected life also helps marketers understand you better. People can be sensitive about how marketers use their information, but the fact is that no consumer product or service is ever truly free and consumers have more to gain by sharing in this case. The willingness of consumers to receive branded messages is the foundation of online video, social media, and so much more. The information marketers glean about you—as an anonymous profile, not a named individual— allows marketers to begin to understand what kind of information you can really use. Instead of lowest-common-denominator pitches, advertising can become content—news you can use, entertainment you genuinely enjoy.
Even better, your data can actually help advertisers avoid showing you ads you won’t like, or pushing products you don’t need. The data you provide through one platform or service can help you get more out of the others you use. An auto marketer doesn’t care about your driving habits because they’re stalking you—it’s just about being able to predict how your tires will wear, what kind of weather you’re storing your car in, whether you can wait another year or two for that new timing belt.
In this way, this vision—the “connected consumer”—can help make life simpler and more interesting for you, and allow businesses to offer products and services more efficiently to the people who actually want and need them. But it all depends on your willingness to let your data flow where it’s most useful. And the fears raised by the NSA scandal, and the litigation and regulation sure to follow, now jeopardize that flow.
If people hesitate to share their data with private companies for fear that it may fall into the wrong hands, we may never fulfill the promise of a new generation of innovation with powerful benefits for consumers and businesses alike.