Use big data ethically and make your customers happier !

Big Data: The thorny issue of big data and privacy.

Despite high profile Edward Snowden type media stories, most people are completely unaware of just how much data is freely available about them online. Even if someone takes the time to complete privacy settings on social media and is deliberately vague and cautious about over-sharing – there is still a phenomenal amount of information being collected, stored and analysed.

Most people for example are almost entirely oblivious to the fact that the GPS sensor in their smart phone makes it possible to identify where a picture was taken within a few metres – regardless of whether the person sharing the photo adds a tag, message or caption. They don’t realise that their web browser is monitoring their every move or even that people can easily hack into the camera on their laptop and watch them! And they certainly don’t comprehend how open and freely available their social media sites are or how much of what they post is saved and analysed (even on the sites that say the image last for 10 second!) Although not just Facebook, if we all stopped using Facebook today (which is very unlikely), the company would still have more information about private individuals than any other private company on the planet!

The possibilities of face recognition software alone are more than a little frightening and whilst that software can help to prevent crime and thwart terrorist activities it can also be used to spy on ordinary people for commercial purposes. And therein lies one of the big thorny issue – most people have absolutely no ideas what is going on in darkened rooms in places that don’t officially exists or in the basements of giant corporations who have access to masses of data and futuristic technology.

We don’t know what data is being compiled about us and even if companies or applications tell us in their terms and conditions most people don’t read them, or even if they do read them they don’t understand them or understand the implications of what they are agreeing to.

For example did you realise that if you use Google’s free email service Gmail they feel that you can’t legitimately expect privacy. Basically Google believes it is okay to read and analyze the content of any and all of your private emails whether they are sent or received from a Gmail user.

But it’s not just Google. Facebook are famous or rather infamous for constantly tinkering with the privacy policy and privacy settings.

The whole idea of data protection and giving people back power over their data is a really important point. And for me the best way forward is not only to be really transparent about how the data is being used but also adding value to the user.

If a company is giving something useful back to me as a user then I don’t mind them aggregating some of my data if it also helps them. For example I have one of the latest Smart TVs from Samsung which allows me to program the TV and using the in-built camera it detects the faces of my children and limits what they can watch. I don’t mind Samsung knowing what I watch on my Smart TV because they are helping me and my wife to protect our children from stuff they shouldn’t see.

In the same way I don’t mind Jawbone the manufacturers of my “Up” band analysing my sleeping patterns because the system helps me monitor my health and well being in real time. I also use the data from my band to recover faster between time zones, which is actually really helpful to me as I travel for business.

But I want to know the truth about what they are doing with the data. If the data is aggregated and not necessarily connected to me as an individual I’m fine with that because it can help us understand more. For example the data that Jawbone has collected on sleep alone is making huge in-roads into our collective understanding of sleep, insomnia and how sleep is impacted by various factors. And this has the potential to help a lot of people.

The key to success is to be open, honest and transparent about how you want to use the data. Operate ethically and offer genuine value to your customers in exchange for providing you with that data. If you provide value most people will be happy – especially if you remove personal markers that link you as an individual to the information.

If you can demonstrate that you are using the data ethically people will respond. Plus this aggregate use of data should improve your products and make them cheaper which will make your customers even happier.

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