By John Francis, DBA
Original Publication: Marketo
Date of Publication: November 12, 2018
When I worked as a webmaster at AOL in the early days, every employee had visibility into every member’s account. Then in 1999, a naval officer was outed by one of the employees after he logged into an alternate profile with a different screen name. AOL’s course of action was to immediately shut down access to all members’ data and hire an integrity assurance officer. It was a moment of reckoning for online privacy.
I’ve been thinking about that anecdote a lot recently following the revelations about how Cambridge Analytica accessed and deployed Facebook data to impact the U.S. election. There’s been a lot of discussion about how much Mark Zuckerberg knew and whether Facebook should have done more to prevent or stop the data theft. Those are absolutely questions worth considering, but the issue of data theft is nothing new. Tech companies have always created platforms with a certain degree of naivete about the possibility that user data could be exposed or exploited.
As a marketer, it’s important to understand privacy as it is part of the customer experience. In this blog, I’ll tell you about what a walled garden is and why it’s a myth, how to engage with customers, and what a privacy forward strategy looks like for marketing teams & their customers.
The Myth of the Walled Garden
At a recent Videonomics symposium, I heard representatives from many tech companies discuss how advertisers couldn’t get into their “walled gardens.” A walled garden is a closed ecosystem where operations are controlled by an ecosystem operator. The term is frequently used, but based on decades of experience with dot-coms and digital advertising, I consider a myth.
The fact is that it’s very simple for someone to take first and third-party data, link it up and retarget consumers with ads. That information combined with a user’s history can help build a persona around them. Even though Facebook shut down the ability to take data from third-party data brokers, companies can still put cookies on other websites that collect activity from users. They may not know who the person is, but if they have an IP address and can link those two together with Facebook, you get a full 360-degree view. The data that is already out there, whether it’s been released or stolen, can then be correlated and shared.
Moreover, data breaches appear to be accelerating in severity and scale. Breaches at Yahoo, Sony PlayStation, and Alteryx, for example, resulted in compromised data for hundreds of millions of people. All that information is available to anyone. We live in an age of “data promiscuity.” Walled gardens and online privacy are nice to think about, but privacy could soon become a relic of the past, which is why a new crop of data privacy regulations and guidelines are emerging to create a privacy-forward landscape.
Questions around data privacy have particular relevance for marketers and advertisers, who rely on data to improve their targeting capabilities. Robust data allows them to put their ads in front of people and create brand awareness, which helps sell products. Secondly, marketers can use data to put targeted messages in front of people who actually want the product, instead of people who don’t.
However, participants in the advertising ecosystem need to have data integrity assurance incorporated within online platforms that actively works to protect private information. Our industry is making progress towards increasing the capacity to distribute information freely. In addition, the platforms they create to spread this information are very user-friendly. I’m not a programmer by profession, but available analytic tools can be easily configured to exploit private information based on the conspicuously available private data. Cambridge Analytica’s brazen use of a Facebook application to gather insights on millions of users is a prime example of this dynamic at work.
Engaging with Relevant Content
Moreover, Facebook uses a process called content-based targeting, whereby related content and ads are delivered to members based on their likes, shares, and follows. Facebook collects much more data about members’ engagement than what is made privy to advertisers.
Targeting the right audience doesn’t (and shouldn’t) require theft and privacy violations. Data privacy and marketing do not have to be mutually exclusive. Marketers care that an action was created, but not about who created it. All that matters is what the consumer did and why.
Digital analytics and web traffic tools like Google Analytics and Matomo place pixels on a website. The pixel provides timestamp information when an action is taken. Say a commercial aired on Lifetime for a Gerber product. If somebody sees the call to action and types in the URL on their computer or mobile device, then we know what ad they saw, where they were located, and the time and device they used. We also know that a commercial sent a certain amount of money at cost-per-click or per action, which is useful for looking at a marketing budget and figuring out where best media spends are.
A Privacy Forward Approach
In June 2018, California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) of 2018. The policy grants consumers the right to request the data that businesses collect on them and to ask companies not to sell their data. The law imposes strict rules about how businesses disclose data collected from consumers. It also empowers the state Attorney General to fine companies for noncompliance. Needless to say, it was opposed by major media, telecom and tech companies, including Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. Facebook initially opposed it but eased off after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.
The CCPA was inspired by what is happening in Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which imposed new rules on controlling and processing personally identifiable information, or PII. There was skepticism that the privacy forward principles of the GDPR would catch on in the U.S., but it has, starting with California which is setting the standard other states will soon follow. Dot-coms are following suit as well, as evidenced by the pop-ups about policy changes on what feels like every ecommerce and news site.
These initiatives have entered the term “privacy forward” into the modern lexicon. A privacy forward approach is best described as the guidelines for identifying data that should be considered classified. Classified information includes IP addresses, contact information, and genetic and biometric data. It also encourages organizations that collect personal data to conduct mapping and maintain a 360-degree view. Customer information is not a commodity, but rather a personal bond of trust between an organization and its customers. This also extends to what is shared with outside vendors and third-party data analytic tools and their associated platforms. Transparency is paramount.
In 2001, with the merger of Time Warner and AOL, the FCC ordered AIM, which had over 90% of the market (and thus user data) to become interoperable with other chat platforms. Today, Facebook is participating the Data Transfer Project, a collaboration of organizations, including Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, committed to building a common way for people to transfer data into and out of online services. It’s a big and exciting step towards making privacy forward the norm.