On Big Data, Privacy, and Transparency

Better to ask for permission rather than forgiveness.

Concerns about privacy did not begin with the era of Big Data or the advent of Facebook. They’ve been with us since the advent of the Internet. For instance, during the dot-com boom, companies like DoubleClick (now owned by Google) pushed the privacy envelope as it attempted to serve up relevant ads via cookies.

In August of 2012, the Federal Trade Commission “fined Google $22.5 million…to settle charges that it had bypassed privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser to be able to track users of the browser and show them advertisements, and violated an earlier privacy settlement with the agency.” As The New York Times’ article points out, the fine represents “the largest civil penalty ever levied by the commission.”

Nothing’s Shocking

This should shock no one. Increasingly, the FTC has been cracking down on tech companies for privacy violations. (The European Union has been even more vigilant vis-à-vis privacy breaches.) What’s more, the FTC continues to monitor Google for antitrust violations. And let’s be honest here: Given Google’s recent track record on privacy, the FTC certainly should keep its eye on Larry and Sergey’s company.

Ignore privacy issues at your own peril.

Now, Google can afford to pay the fine–and then some–but that’s hardly the point. And the fine and resulting negative press didn’t make a dent in Google’s stock price or brand. After all, Gmail, YouTube, and the other planks in its platform have become indispensable tools for far too many of us. Whether it can sustain further hits to its reputation is another matter. Remember, people don’t have to use Google products and services; it’s a matter of user and consumer choice. In each case, alternatives exist to Google’s products.

Organizations with much less traction and stickiness than Google should pay particular attention to transparency. A customer whose privacy has been violated may well not come back, not to mention tell her friends.

Simon Says: Start with Transparency

Today, organizations can do amazing things with Big Data. Foolish is the CXO, however, who doesn’t recognize the very real issues posed by our ability to track just about everything. While there’s no secret sauce to avoiding the pitfalls of Big Data, lack of transparency is ill advised. Better to ask for permission rather than forgiveness.

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I wrote this post as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program. It provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise, and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. IBM has compensated me to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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