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Privacy in the Age of Geotracking

You may have been reading about the travails of Whisper – the mobile app that got itself into hot water recently after newspaper reports revealed that despite selling itself on providing complete user anonymity, it had in fact been tracking the location of its users – even some who had specifically opted out of geo-location tracking.

Popular with college students, Whisper is taking a lot of heat for this precisely because it bills itself as “the safest place on the internet” and has been frequently referred to as the “anti-Facebook” in the way it allows users to send and receive messages anonymously. As well as a display of questionable ethics and a significant breach of trust, the Whisper debacle serves as another reminder of the threat to our privacy as our lives are increasingly lived online.

This may be from my viewpoint as a non-Millennial, but the amount of personal information that we so readily share online often gives me pause (although this report from Slate.com suggests privacy is a bigger concern for Millennials than previously thought). Even if you eschew social community sites like Facebook, then from a professional point of view, sharing detailed information on LinkedIn is now pretty much a necessity – although clearly there are huge benefits to being part of that community also.

As a marketing and communications professional, I’m excited by the digital landscape which continues to involve at such a fast pace, providing innovative ways of reaching audiences in ever-more targeted ways. But it pays to remember that ultimately digital media is just that – the means by which we reach our audiences to tell our story. Businesses invest so much time and effort in building trust, so it’s vital that that trust isn’t damaged through the misuse of digital tools.

In a recent blog, I wrote about cross-device marketing and targeting, the challenge being that right now there really isn’t a fail-safe way of tracking people as they switch between their tablets, smartphones and laptops. However that technology is coming, which again is exciting from a relevance and accuracy point of view, but does carry with it a responsibility in terms of privacy.

A recent Harris Poll survey (cited in this 2014 AdAge report) found that 88% of Americans think online privacy will be one of their major concerns over the coming decade. So the brands that will win going forward are those who: give people an easy and quick way of opting out of ads, are clear on what data they are collecting and what they are doing with it, think from a customer-centric point of view and avoid the temptation to bombard them at every turn. I liken it to being an unwelcome guest – the obnoxious guy who crashes a party he heard you were having, is the last to leave, and then turns up uninvited again for brunch the next day. No one wants that guy around. So let’s not be that guy!

Instead, let’s use emerging technologies and digital innovations to create more elegant, relevant and useful relationships with our customer base. That sounds like a pretty bright future to me.


 

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