At What Cost?

Computer screen security

A recent Accenture survey of U.S. consumers, ages 20-40, revealed that more than 80 percent believe privacy is a thing of the past. With marketers’ increasing use of consumer data to track buyers across digital platforms, channels, and devices, we as consumers have become all too accustomed to our privacy being compromised by security breaches, aggressive marketing, and so much more. At the same time, we seem to be forgiving if there is a balance − value delivered for privacy diminished. Still, as marketers, have we gone too far?

We all recognize the intrusion of an unwanted dinnertime phone call congratulating us on having won a fun-filled vacation in sunny Orlando. However, other forms of privacy-invasion are subtle and often completely invisible. For example, hundreds of apps have increasingly incorporated “ultrasonic tones” to track consumers. They ask permission to access your smartphone microphone then listen for inaudible “beacons” emanating from brick-and-mortar retail stores, TV and radio advertising, and even online browsing – triggering rivers of personal data on your likes/dislikes, habits, and who knows what else – all without your knowledge or permission.

Try this for yourself: on Android devices, navigate to Settings, then to Apps. Tap the gear icon in the upper right, then tap App Permissions to see and edit privileges you’ve granted each app. On iOS devices, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Microphone to see which apps you’ve granted access. In my case, I’d granted access to a surprising 15 apps.

Now, of course, I’d granted access to Skype and What’s App. I recognize their need to use the microphone in order to complete a conversation. With others, like Google and Waze, I simply don’t remember having granted such permission. Further I’m not certain what the benefits and/or risks I may be open to by downloading these apps. 

It’s one thing for Waze to always know where I am, but it’s quite another for them to have access to listen in on my conversations. Maybe they do listen in (or even record) or maybe they don’t – but the net-net is this: we must pay attention to what permissions apps request for better insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. Most companies using “ultrasonic cross-device tracking” technology claim that they don’t store any records of audible sound – they’re only listening for those ultrasonic beacons. But, as with any “always on” sensing technology, there’s the potential for a slippery slope.

And what about those creepy ads haunting you long after your online research for a vacation destination, piece of real estate, or product offering? It seems the moment an idea pops into my head, I begin receiving related ads in the margin of my web browser. In one disturbing case, I hadn’t even done an actual search, but rather I’d just mentioned a particular service in an email only to begin receiving those ubiquitous advertisements from that service provider. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but like the old adage says, “Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being followed”

Companies now have the ability to view and dissect our browsing histories and online activities to more effectively target their advertising. Gone are those Mad Men days when advertisers needed to entice consumers with persuasive and compelling storytelling in order to sell their wares. Today’s digital advertisers hunt down consumers and close in on them.

When was the last time you received a Facebook ad for a product “outside the box” of your personal interests? It appears to me that they only run advertising on products I might “Like.” What might I be missing? While I may not have a sudden urge to buy a silk scarf or quilt, l still miss the old days when I might actually discover new things.

In so many aspects of our daily lives, we’re being exposed to content based on our historic behavior. Whether it’s our political affiliation, newscasts, product purchases, dining habits, whatever … we’re constantly being sliced, diced, and further isolated in the bubbles and tunnels of our past experience. But all of this may well change in the near future.

Targeted marketing is poised for a profound seismic shift on May 25, 2018. This is the deadline for General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) to go into full effect across Europe. In 2016, the European Parliament entered into force GDPR modernizing and reforming laws to address the collection and handling of personal data.

It applies to European Union (EU) citizens’ data regardless of where it is collected, stored, or processed – inside or outside the EU. For any U.S. company collecting and storing personal data of EU citizens, GDPR will be relevant to your organization – even if it has no formal presence in the EU. Non-compliance comes with some truly staggering penalties and fines: in certain cases, up to (gulp) 4 percent of global revenues.

GDPR came about, in large part, as the result of single advocate in Spain named Mario Costeja Gonzales. His six-year legal battle with Google demanding his name be “forgotten,” and wishing to have his data removed from their files. His victory was a victory for consumers worldwide.

Under GDPR, individuals have the right to have their personal data erased, have inaccurate data corrected, be removed from digital marketing, be notified of any data breaches within 72 hours, be notified if their data is sold, tagged, utilized by third-parties – and much more. Can similar U.S. regulatory reform be far behind?