Fighting the Fear of Data (That 50% of us Share)

“I don’t like companies having my data.” Says someone between status updates. “I feel violated that they know everything about me!”

This hypothetical individual isn't alone. About 50% of people are worried about the amount of personal information about them online.

If you’ve done any data research lately, the first thing you trip over is angered masses picketing at the door of big data.

As a marketer and a consumer, I’m aware of the data I’m offering to the system. Most people however are not aware that companies collect data on just about everything. Only 25% of people are aware their location is shared and only 18% are aware that their communication history is tracked.

Regardless of how aware they are, 86% of people have taken some steps to mask their digital footprint.

Data has become a PR battle. I shouldn’t have to explain how valuable data is to companies, but the importance of transparency and security can’t be overstated. I was reading an interview with Alex Pentland who remarked that a major data disaster could result in sweeping regulatory change. If something like that happened, this beautiful information could be a restricted commodity.

Companies need to start taking steps to improve big data PR, because consumers are skeptical and the information is vulnerable.

So why don’t people trust data?

Most public exposure to data is controversy based. Passwords are stolen, conversations are listened to, credit card data is lost, banks are hacked; it’s no wonder people fear the system, because it can be exploited. There is also a lot of ambiguity about what data is tracked, how it’s acquired and what it’s used for. 

People understand the downside of data, but what about the upside? Just as most people aren’t aware what is being tracked, I would bet most are unaware of how it’s improving their lives. Better products, better buying experiences, more relevant advertising; these are all ways data matters. Yet a lot of it is hidden because big data is scary, and I feel we need to do a better job as companies change this perception.

How do you change opinions on big data? Transparency and education.

Being transparent isn’t enough, you need to educate the customer as well. There are three key areas that need to be discussed:

  • What is being tracked?
  • Where is it being gathered?
  • What is it used for?

I’ll use a simple example to illustrate. As a child, I remember buying groceries with my family and the teller asking my parents what our postal code was.

“Why do you want to know that?”

“We use that information to plan future stores that may be more convenient.”

Even as a youngster I understood the purpose of this data. They didn’t want a specific address to spam mail, they wanted to plan expansions around business opportunities. It made sense, and I think companies have to think about data collection the same way - upfront and in the open.


What data is being tracked?

Consumer statistics are important. In the case of the grocery store, they were interested in customer locations, but demographics, preferences, patterns and associations are all valuable.

Companies need to expose the sort of information they are tracking so that customers can choose what they wish to contribute. Choice is empowering.

Ever get a vague popup like this? Maybe if I knew what was being accessed and why, I might be a bit less skeptical.


Where is it being gathered?

Everywhere. Well, just about. Collection points are growing everyday. Projections are that by 2020 we’ll have quadrupled the number of ‘things’ that connect to the internet and generate data. Your everyday touch-points are going online. Heck, cars are even generating wifi. Everything is data, so it’s only a natural evolution that it’ll be tracked, transmitted and mined.

Is the customer aware this is happening? And I mean really aware, not 'in the fine print and you clicked accept' kind of aware. Don't trick people into giving you data.

How is it being used?

I would argue that if people understood how their data was being used, more people would volunteer their information. There are two main ways data can be used to benefit the customer: marketing and improved experiences. 


Let’s say I’m promoting a new small-sized car. My audience is recent graduates going to college, so I use Facebook to target specific individuals. Ads now target a certain age or affiliation, and my chances of ad conversion improve.

This sounds great from the companies standpoint, but it scares people because how does it benefit them? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see ads relevant to me, rather than feminine hygiene products that clearly have 0% chance of appealing to me.

Improving Experiences

Take the Magic Band bracelet from Disney. It offers a hyper-simplistic experience by coordinating payments, reservations, etc. through a small piece of technology. But of course it tracks your behaviour as well, which can then be used to improve park experiences.



There is another way data is used that doesn't benefit the customer, and that's selling it.

Credit card companies are ranked higher at 85% more trustworthy with personal data than social media companies at 56%. Despite credit card scandals, people distrust social media sites that have been notorious at providing data to third party companies. It's these situations that are creating demands for regulations.

The customer has a right to know what products are tracking their information, what is being tracked and how it is being used. It can’t be hidden in the fine print. See data as a collaboration with the customer, a way to benefit both sides, not a chance to profit from statistics.

Data tracking isn’t new, but it’s growth is creating new demands on regulations to protect privacy and consumer interest. I’m interested in these advances, specifically in terms of transparency and consumer awareness.

Some may argue that if we open up data and make cooperation voluntary, people won't do it. Doesn't that sound absurd? Involuntary cooperation?

If people understand the system (at least at a high level), and how data can benefit their lives, I think more people would open up about it.