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We can’t go on like this: A remedy for the personal information trust trap?

Samsung is currently taking a pummelling from the media. Last month it was criticised for its Smart TVs that ‘spy’ on people in their homes, selling information on their behaviour and viewing choices to a nameless third party who is exploiting it commercially. As if this wasn’t enough to keep their PR team busy, a new fact has come to light: Samsung is working with a company that inserts targeted ads into content after it has been purchased and downloaded onto those same Smart TVs. The targeting is of course based on the information they have collected about you from your viewing habits, totally in line with their terms and conditions, but still without you overtly knowing.


 Without a pro-commerce paradigm shift, businesses just won’t stop exploiting their customers’ personal information. We are fast approaching a tipping point where the nature of the information being unwittingly shared will elicit more than outrage, it will start to properly engender fear into the ordinary person in the street. Why? Because of the Internet of Things.


An exponential wave of personal information is set to break as more and more everyday devices are always online. Let me give you an example. The intimate personal information gleaned from a child’s internet connected watch about his or her geolocation and daily movements could be sold to an anonymous third party without the parents’ knowledge or consent. Information on health from a personal fitness monitoring device or internet connected exercise bike might be sold to insurers, or even just shared with HR at work.


The problem as we have learned only too starkly in the last year, is that even familiar corporations we have willingly shared our information with can be routinely hacked by criminals. So how would we even know about data security breaches if we didn’t know who had our information in the first place? The long and impenetrable terms and conditions that we all so routinely skip past to tick the box when we get an insurance quote, or set up our phones or TVs, just to get to the content, are seemingly deliberately drafted to enable companies to extract commercial gain from our data with legal impunity. They are also very long and almost without exception in a very small font to make them even more unpalatable to engage with.


So what happens now? Are we advocating that governments clamp down on unfair business practices? Absolutely not. Regulation is not the answer. Businesses will eventually innovate their way around it anyway, but in the here and now, it would be anti-commerce, which in our view, doesn’t help anyone. We need a pro-commerce, middle way (not a compromise) that shifts the decisions about who can see and exploit what information from the (stereotyped) tight grip of business into the hands of each individual. We believe this the only workable solution. And it could also potentially help businesses like Samsung rebuild their reputation as a neat side effect.


The idea has been around for a while and has many exponents. But to date, there is no ubiquitous standard solution to achieving this shift. Some people call it Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), and others talk about personal information stores or personal clouds. The visionary academic Doc Searls, the originator of VRM theory writes of the ‘Intention Economy - When customers take charge’. All of which makes perfect sense but as a new paradigm, it currently lacks scale and pace.


The industry needs to evolve how it requests for and discusses personal information.  Don’t just put the customer in charge, explain to the business why it’s in their best interests and harness the power of their distribution capabilities. In my experience, customers are ready and willing to have an open, honest conversation about what their data or personal information is worth and also what they are willing to sacrifice for a product, service or offering. It’s all about negotiation and customers want to be involved in that negotiation from the beginning of a relationship.


This would change not only the way they interact with their bank, but also give them a simple way to take charge of all of their relationships with the other businesses that are present in their connected lives – telecoms, retailers even government. Bringing businesses into the eco-system to make them pivotal in the solution is the fastest way to achieve scale. Individual outrage, whilst powerful and authentic up close, will never out-gun corporate marketing impact when viewed at any distance.  It will be interesting to see which of the major brands ‘gets it’ first. 



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