Data privacy is not a right

Limits on collecting information would stifle the ongoing transformation of how we do business


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A number of tech firms have made headlines recently for the perceived unethical use of data. After congressional hearings, negative public relations crises and a broader understanding of just how much data is collected on us, the next logical question becomes: Do we have a right to data privacy?

As a millennial, my short answer is no. Our data is the currency that pays for the free digital services that we have access to — news, social media, video content and more — and without that currency the digital experience and the ways that companies serve us as consumers is severely limited. We can’t have both the expectation of the free content that we’ve been accustomed to and the expectation of data privacy.

Taking a step back, it helps to start by understanding what data is collected on us as consumers, why it’s collected and what’s done with it. Amazon, the online shopping behemoth, can be used as a brief case study to understand how data influences their interactions with consumers and improves our experience with the site.

The company gathers data on what we search, purchase and click on, as well as our time spent browsing other sites (for example, you may see an Amazon advertisement pop up for a product you just searched for on Google). They track the videos we watch through Prime Video and use it to create more relevant content for their audience. Sales data is likely used to determine which products they should white label as ‘Amazon Basics’ and sell at lower cost to consumers.

Have you ever noticed the “Customers who viewed this also viewed” tab on an item or the “Frequently bought together” components of a product page? These are generated from other Amazon customers with similar search and purchasing habits with the goal of not only driving more but also presenting you with more relevant content. It helps facilitate our online shopping experience.

After being accustomed to this personalized experience, it can be frustrating for me to have an online experience that presents me with irrelevant content. Personalization and one-to-one marketing, which are empowered by vast amounts of our data, benefit both the consumer and the company itself.

In short, Amazon collects data on our interactions with the site — and other browsing habits off the site — and uses it to create more relevant products and services, recommend items we may enjoy or that are frequently bought together, and help us navigate their site better.

The example is oversimplified in many respects but is representative of the positive aspects of more ethical data usage. The tradeoff of data privacy for relevancy is one that I’m willing to make.

I’ll caveat the above by saying data privacy and data security are two separate items that can’t be conflated here. We should expect that personally identifiable information collected on us should be secure (i.e. unlike the Experian data breach exposing credit information on millions of Americans), but not that we should own our data nor that anonymized versions of that data shouldn’t be used for our benefit. Taking advantage of the benefits of the modern economy means sacrificing some personal protections in the process.

Data can be used unethically and “big data” can be intrusive. There is a blurry line of what should and shouldn’t be done with our data. That said, data is transforming how business is done and limiting that potential stifles revolutionary change in many industries.

Learning how to ethically balance data capture and usage with security and privacy is a challenge to the data community today, but as consumers, we must come to grips with the fact that the capturing and usage of our digital data is beyond our control and, with that established, seeing the ways our data can be used positively, shines a new light on the benefits it can deliver us. 

Jordan Bean, a senior associate at Stax Inc. in Boston, can be reached at jordan@jordanbean.com.

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