A staggering array of data collection tools currently exist online. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to machine learning, biometric scanning, and geolocation, “big data” only seems to be getting bigger. This can be a cause of concern for analysts and consumers alike. Consequently, there is much to discuss when it comes to the ethical concerns surrounding data collection practices.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the current state of data collection in digital marketing. We’ll also break down how different generations view privacy and security in this regard. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in!
The Current State of Big Data and Ethics
A recent study indicates that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every minute. Just for reference, a quintillion has 30 zeros attached to it. Suffice it to say, that’s a lot of data. So, how did we get to this point?
Let’s start off by taking a look at data collection technology in terms of Moore’s Law. This is a term coined in the 1960s, which predicted that computer processing power would double every two years.
This concept can be applied to the rapid pace of technological advancement in general. When we look at it in terms of data collection, it’s sometimes frightening to think about what might be possible in the coming months and years.
Currently, marketers are likely familiar with several technological approaches to data collection. These include opt-in forms for email lists, in addition to location detection on web browsers. One of the most common ways to gather information about web users, however, is with cookies.
These are files that act as breadcrumbs, and tell a site if you’ve been there before. They also help the website remember certain things about you, such as what browser, device, and operating system you’re using to access the web (and even your location). In other words, this type of technology has made it possible to gather a lot of sensitive data quickly and easily.
Europe and the General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR)
In response to all of this data collection, Europe initiated a General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect in May of 2018. While it originated in Europe, this regulation has had a global impact.
The main element of the GDPR is that marketers and websites must obtain explicit consent from users before collecting or storing any of their data. Additionally, consumers have the right and ability to withdraw their consent at any time.
The Right To Be Forgotten Rule
A few years prior to GDPR approval, Europe also instituted a Right To Be Forgotten (RTBF) rule. This stipulated that anyone had the right to request that specific private web pages be excluded from search engine indexing, even if the pages ultimately remained online.
A recent court case, however, ruled in favor of Google in a case where French regulators attempted to apply the RTBF rule globally. Google argued that Europe could not determine the search results users in other countries might receive. Considered a win for free speech, this case demonstrates the constant push-and-pull between data collection and user rights.
California’s Landmark Consumer Privacy Act
Despite the United States lagging behind Europe in terms of data legislation, it has pulled ahead on actual compliance. According to research conducted in 2018, 33% of North American firms polled were already GDPR compliant, compared to 16% of their European counterparts.
California in particular is following Europe’s lead, and has approved strong legislation designed to protect consumer privacy. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives Californians the right to view and delete data collected about them by companies online. It also gives them a legal path for preventing businesses from selling that information.
Understanding the Generational Divide About Data Collection
Despite the above general trends, it’s important to understand that not all internet users are on the same page about data collection. Across the generations, there are varying degrees of concern and acceptance when it comes to online privacy.
Whether it’s a matter of convenience or feeling like your favorite brand understands you, viewpoints vary across generations:
- Baby Boomers: Seemingly the most concerned about privacy, 47% of Baby Boomers reported being ‘very concerned’.
- Gen X: Slightly more comfortable than the Boomers before them, 35% of Gen X’ers said they were ‘very concerned’ also.
- Millennials: Nearly tied with Gen Z, 29% of Millennials surveyed are “very concerned” about data collection and privacy online.
- Gen Z: Often presenting a mixed bag of privacy concerns coupled with a desire for personalized content, 28% were still ‘very concerned’ about their privacy online.
Research on the topic indicates that most demographics want to have their cake and eat it too. Consumers love personalized experiences online, but are wary of Facebook-like misuse of their personal data.
3 Questions About Big Data Collection in the Information Age
As we continue to wrestle with rapid innovation and the advances in data collection afforded by new technology, there are plenty of big questions to consider. Here are three that may shape the way you do business online.
1. How Can You Help Consumers (And Do You Really Need To)?
The reality seems to be that data collection is a necessary component for successful online marketing. Unintentional harm, however, happens all too frequently when it comes to consumer data. In fact, 9.7 billion data records have been stolen globally since 2013.
Additionally, it’s been shown that small businesses can be more vulnerable to data theft. With that in mind, data protection software might be an unavoidable but vital investment to consider.
2. Should Marketers Dial Back and Approach Data Collection Differently?
It’s unlikely that debates regarding data collection practices will go away soon. Does that mean you should tone down your data-dependent marketing efforts? On the contrary, most professionals feel that it is possible to proceed with care.
In fact, data and technology ethicists continue to believe that asking the right questions is an imperative approach. As developers push the boundaries of innovation, rather than asking “What is possible?” there might be more value in asking “What should we do?” Regardless of your approach, staying a step ahead of emerging legislation can help your business avoid all kinds of potential problems.
3. How Much Data Is Too Much Data?
Ethically speaking, marketers can argue that data collection is “for the greater good” because it improves the customer experience. There is potential, however, for an oversaturation of data. When this happens, all that data risks becoming meaningless, and can even do more harm than good. Processing and organizing the data we collect might also become too unwieldy.
Some potential safeguards against wasted data are emerging developments in enhanced machine learning and AI. These innovations may provide a way to better sift, organize, and evaluate collected data. Of course, these technologies come with their own set of potential ethical and legal pitfalls to consider.
While North America has stayed ahead of its European counterparts in adhering to emerging data privacy regulations, there remain concerns. Assessing whether you’re providing your customers with clear data privacy policies is just one way you can balance the give and take of online data.
What are your thoughts on the current state of data collection and its future potential? Share your insights with us in the comments section below!
Image credit: Gerd Altmann.