THE BLOG

2014: Trust Is The New Currency

06/02/2014 13:20 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

Any privacy professional will tell you that in the early days of their career they had to come to an unfortunate realisation - people respect what you do, but are generally uninterested. We're like economists or geologists - get us together and we can have heady philosophical conversations about the impact of what we do everyday; but we're mostly rubbish when dinner party conversation requires us to describe our work.

But privacy as a relevant everyday concept has been pushing its way into the mainstream and, the events of 2013 accelerated that trend. Dictionary.com even named privacy its word of the year, citing author Shel Israel's assertion that "trust is the new currency." It appears to be a kind of natural market correction - data collection has been seemingly rampant for years and since it hasn't been clear to average users exactly what is going on, many assume the worst.

It's unfamiliar territory for us - is privacy sexy?

In a recent study conducted by research firm Toluna, over four in five UK and US consumers (84% and 86% respectively) have a more favorable opinion of businesses and brands who are honest, open and disclosing of their data collection activities. Compare that to the same research conducted in 2012, which shows that just 54% of UK consumers and 57% of US consumers thought more favorably towards businesses who are honest, and you can map a dramatic shift towards interest in data collection.

This is predictable given the headlines of 2013 - data breaches at major companies, the scrutiny around the introduction of wearable tech like Google Glass, Edward Snowden's revelations about the US NSA, or the high degree of activity around consumer privacy among regulatory groups worldwide - you would have projected negative pressure on the "Big Data" business.

In actuality, data collection activities saw enormous growth in 2013. In the fourth quarter of 2012, Ghostery users encountered 987 distinct technologies used for everything from basic website usage statistics to sophisticated behavioral analysis. In the final quarter of 2013, that number nearly doubled - 1,760 distinct tracking technologies were encountered across the web (an increase of approximately 80%).

And it wasn't just new players driving growth, large companies also expanded tracking behavior. Facebook refined its retargeting features, making it easier to take advantage of all the users available through the Facebook Ad Exchange (FBX). Additionally, Amazon launched a real-time bidding platform to compete with the social giant, opening up the ability to target users across the web based on Amazon product searches and purchases. And both of these companies stand as underdog rivals to Google, whose Doubleclick advertising exchange and Google Analytics site measurement tools continue to dominate the online data collection landscape.

This growth has come with change. Where online marketing was once characterised by experimentation and a willingness to partner with any new company that came along, today's website owners and advertisers are much more self-reflective. They rely on data not only to target consumers, but to measure the effectiveness of these data-driven strategies.

Examples of this self-reflection are evident in real changes in the way businesses operate. Practices that led to the proliferation of tracking technologies are coming under scrutiny, such as allowing deployed technology to redirect data to other unknown companies - resulting in tracking from companies with little connection to the actual website owner. And as site owners become more educated about the value of the data from their audience, they are engaging with their users to allow for collection in more open and interesting ways.

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Evidon TrackerMap - showing how some technologies on a web page are removed from the site owner by several steps

This illustrates that despite growth, the privacy climate did have a tangible effect on the online marketing industry. While actual collection has increased, transparency about how user data is involved in online transactions has become a hot-button issue. Just as website owners and data collection companies began to learn more about one another, they began trying new ways to educate their end users as well. Data warehouse Acxiom introduced the consumer-facing site "About the Data", which explains how data is collected by Acxiom, what it's used for when it's purchased by their clients, and exposes exactly what the company knows about individual users. This is a particular overt example of a company that was probably unknown to many average consumers making efforts to pull back the curtain and take some of the mystery away from the data trade.

So we collectively survived a year that saw both growth in online tracking activity, as well as a rise in understanding and education about that activity. But can both sides of the data collection coin continue to trend upward in 2014? Are we setting the stage for a showdown between consumer sensitivity and online marketing revenue?

In short, probably not. Expect growth - both in overall understanding about data driven marketing and its practice. Chiefly because they both still have a lot of room to grow.

When asked to cite companies that were the most trustworthy collector of consumer data, 16% of the respondents in the Toluna study mentioned Amazon - the most of any company. Google and Facebook suffered particularly in this department, with most respondents calling them poor stewards of user data. But when asked for specific examples, these same people were unable provide concrete reasons for their mistrust. As our lives center progressively more around digital enhancements to our day-to-day activities, it is incumbent upon us to understand how our data is being collected and make reasoned, informed decisions about the brands, devices, and websites we trust. But those informed decisions cannot occur without information - so it's equally important that brands, manufacturers, and website publishers continue to make disclosures more obvious and easier to understand.

This is particularly true as we look at emerging technology poised to become more mainstream in 2014. Wearable tech was a leading gift item during the holiday season - people are collecting data about and quantifying their everyday living. As these tools get more sophisticated, they grow from simply counting our steps into measuring our overall health through metrics like sleep and heart rate. Sharing this data is still a topic to discuss - on the one hand, this kind of information could be very helpful to share with medical professionals, personal trainers, or even friends that are holding us accountable for our 2014 fitness resolutions; but users may feel especially sensitive sharing this information with marketers of diet plans or sleep aides.

From a marketing perspective, this public push to collect data means more and more opportunities to match consumers with products they are likely to purchase - provided the sensitivities can be sorted. But if brands and data driven marketing companies continue to be diligent in their choices about what kinds of data to share and the kinds of tools to deploy, then the world of behaviorally targeted advertisements and audience intelligence is poised to continue to gain ground.

2014 will be the year of transparency. We'll be more active in collecting and sharing information about our daily lives. Websites and marketers will continue to realise the benefits of being open and honest about their use of data. And many governmental agencies have already begun to reevaluate their policies on data collection and surveillance. It stands to be a pretty good year for us privacy professionals - so keep those dinner party invitations coming. We'll have a lot to talk about.