Finally, the world is getting concerned about data privacy

Consumers and employees are finally becoming more sensitive to the privacy of their data. As technology leaders it's worth getting ahead of this trend.

Girlfriend Reading Boyfriend's Messages While He Texting Sitting In Cafe

Image: Prostock-Studio, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Before US presidential news and the COVID-19 coronavirus took over the press, privacy was one of the major topics, with frequent questions around how much data the large social media companies should have, and what uses were appropriate for those data. Companies were even citing privacy as driving financial challenges, with DNA testing companies like 23andMe citing increased awareness around privacy as driving a downward sales trend.

Like many societal trends, privacy seems to operate like a pendulum, swinging to one extreme before hitting an apex and swinging in the opposite direction with increasing quickness. The audacity of some uses of personal data, from marketing tools that seem to bombard your social media feeds with ads for a product merely by uttering its name aloud, to the DNA testing companies that were happily providing data to police and others without prior consent, seems to have finally pushed consumers too far.

SEE: Cheat sheet: Facebook Data Privacy Scandal (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

What's legal isn't always right

Companies have long been on the right side of the law in terms of privacy, and have had fairly wide latitude in the data that they are allowed to capture about their customers and employees despite recent moves to impose limitations with rules like the European Union's GDPR

However, the law and what's right are not always in lockstep, and what may be permissible from a legal perspective can ultimately become detrimental to your ability to attract and retain customers and employees. It's easy to get bogged down in the nuances of what's permissible from a legal perspective, and there are obvious benefits to knowing the most intimate details of your constituents' purchasing habits, location, associations, and movements.

Before phoning up the nearest lawyer, apply some simple checks and balances. Perhaps the simplest is the "newspaper" or "mom" test. Imagine a national newspaper writing a front-page story about how you're capturing and using customer and employee data, or having to explain to your mom what you're doing with her personal data. Would you feel comfortable having the details of what you're capturing expressed in clear terms rather than buried in a Terms and Conditions document, or hidden in an employment clause? Would the news be kind to the protections you've put in place to guard these data, and would they come across as robust and appropriate, based on the sensitivity of what you're capturing?

SEE: How an IBM social engineer hacked two CBS reporters--and then revealed the tricks behind her phishing and spoofing attacks (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Privacy might be your "killer app"

With consumers growing increasingly sensitive about the data that are gathered about them, and how those data are used, some companies have made privacy a core feature of their products. Apple is one of the leading examples in the consumer space, and it's quite easy for the company to market itself as "different" when its key competitors are in the news on a near-daily basis for gathering, reselling, and exploiting customer data.

Even if you are not directly responsible for developing data-driven products, how your company gathers employee data could be billed as a benefit to employment with your company, and might be the "tilt factor" that allows your company to win in a competitive labor market. Interestingly, this "feature" of employment at your organization might even come with a negative price tag in that abandoning tools and employee time dedicated to monitoring and capturing employee actions can actually save money.

It's astounding to witness some of the technical gymnastics employed by companies to do things like prevent copying and pasting an email, ignoring the fact that nearly every human on the face of the earth has a camera in their pocket that can disseminate information to millions in a matter of milliseconds. If you're so concerned about employees sharing sensitive information then clearly you have several HR issues that are not going to be solved by locking down features on your employees' workstations.

There will always be malcontents and mistakes, but if you assume that the people you've vetted and trusted to handle company information appropriately might actually do so, you may find that your trust is rewarded with increased loyalty, retention, and job satisfaction.

SEE: What is fileless malware and how to you protect against it? (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

There's more swing left in the pendulum

I believe we're at the cusp of a privacy revolution of sorts. Devices like personal computers and smartphones that were once perceived as deeply personal are now regarded suspiciously with a growing awareness that they're serving some other master than their owners, exploiting our actions to sell us more stuff, or accomplish more nefarious ends. 

Whether we as leaders are creating new products or merely keeping the technology lights on at our organizations, it's worth acknowledging these concerns, and with some savvy moves we might even be able to use this trend to our advantage.

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