‘If you’re not paying for it, you become the product’. It’s a saying that’s been around for years, but only in the wake of major data leaks and revelations of unsavoury data-sharing practices has the subject of controlling our information started to become top of mind.
The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the EU in mid-2018 brought new awareness, opening consumers’ eyes to the quantity of information that companies were storing about them. Several companies, it has emerged recently, among them Google, Facebook, the Marriott hotel group and Cathay Pacific, have, in various instances, failed to protect the private and sensitive information they held on users, including birth date, gender, occupation, passport numbers, current location and relationship status, leaving them highly vulnerable.
For marketing professionals and brands, the need to accurately identify and target potential customers remains unchanged. But doing so responsibly, securely and in a transparent manner has never been so important. So what does the future of data protection look like?
Personal data lockers
Market research company Forrester envisages a future where personal data lockers (PDLs) – secure online storage ‘facilities’ for information – will enable consumers to dictate exactly what information is shared, and with who.
“A consumer will have several PDLs, containing data on their living situation, their purchasing history, their employment status, their health history, and so on,” says Frederic Giron, China and Southeast Asia research director at Forrester. The consumer will then be able to securely grant limited access to real-estate agents, insurance companies or retailers for research or transaction authorisation, and withdraw this access with ease. In return, those requesting the information will receive accurate, timely data on an individual, to aid in various research pursuits.
“We are already seeing some examples of personal identity and data management (PIDM) approaches in Asia, in particular with Singapore's National Digital Identity, where citizens can give participating agencies access to their personal information stored on the MyInfo service [see video below],” says Giron. “Macquarie Bank is another example – the bank's Open Platform allows its customers to share their banking data, including account information and transactions, without giving their log-in details to a third party.”
He notes that PDLs are further down the road, but banks or public sector agencies could develop their own PDLs to help their customers or constituents meet their personal objectives.
“The future of research for marketing professionals is ‘zero party’,” Giron continues. “This data will be willingly and proactively shared with brands, and it will be extremely valuable, as it will be a display of trust from the consumer.”
Methods currently used to obtain data have clear winners and losers, he adds. “Data aggregators, marketers and others monetising the data are winning, while consumers find themselves inundated with ads – they are the loser. The age of the customer is upon us, and they are forcing their way into the data economy.”
The potential for decentralized, secure data storage to improve marketing experiences should not be underestimated, agrees Roger Haenni, co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong–based blockchain startup Datum. ‘Self-sovereign identities’ are a concept based around the use of blockchain to create decentralized profiles that are fully owned and controlled by users, he explains. While individuals currently create and maintain multiple separate ‘identities’ to use online services such as Facebook or Google, he continues, they have to memorize numerous passwords and leave their private information at the mercy of each site’s own security. “Using blockchain to identify themselves, users will be able to log in to various services, and have their data better protected.”
“Users can share their email address with a business securely, for example, and the business can reward users for doing so,” says Haenni. “Consumers receive a true self-sovereign identity, while businesses can still work with the consumers’ data – a combination of transparency and technical guarantees is capable of regaining consumers’ trust.”
The rise of the ‘digital twin’
According to Forrester’s Giron, once PIDM has matured, the next step for consumers will be to develop a ‘personal digital twin’ (PDT). “A PDT will, essentially, hold all data about an individual, acting as an online gatekeeper to allow it to be used and shared only to the extent that it benefits the individual,” he says. “Until now, algorithms guiding online behaviour have done so – arguably – to the detriment of the consumer. A PDT would operate using algorithms designed from the perspective of consumers, rather than companies.”
Consumers would be able to input personal goals and plans into their PDT, which would then share data pertaining to the individual’s aspirations and filter out content deemed irrelevant. “Everyone has short- and long-term goals, perhaps buying a house, getting into shape or spending more time with their loved ones,” says Giron. “A personal digital twin would show the user relevant ads, products and content that can help them achieve these goals, for example through displaying mortgage and real-estate content, fitness products or local eatery offers.
“The PDT would help the user achieve its goals by optimising every digital experience in every ecosystem of their life.”
- Read more: GDPR: How has it changed data protection in Asia?
- Reactions to Marriott's data breach
- Driving results from first and second party data
Forrester anticipates that Amazon will be one to watch in the developing PDT scene.
“Amazon has accumulated an incredible amount of data about its customers, including search and purchasing history, and its Alexa technology has brought their quest for knowledge into the home,” says Giron. “This gives them the added advantage of understanding the media its customers consume, the food they eat, and much more.” He adds that while many major retailers may continue to accumulate and use data by covert means, Amazon is showing itself to be a zero-party trailblazer. “Amazon has already taken one of the more difficult steps,” he adds. “It lets customers access and modify data kept on them, showing that the company is recognising and acting on the need for PIDM.”
Forrester also expects banks, password managers and governments to embrace and progress the development of digital twin algorithms, and for Adobe to be a leader in the marketing technology space.
Moving towards mutually beneficial rewards
According to Jason Byun, managing director of Cheil PengTai and head of Cheil Data Analytics, brands will need to find ways in the future of bringing together the information they have collected on customers and using it to deliver a better experience.
“Data gleaned from website browser behaviour, email campaigns, advertising campaign response and more can seamlessly support engagement between consumers and brands, though this must be based upon the explicit consent of both, and also platform operators,” he says.
Without this agreement privacy can be breached, seriously damaging trust and causing harm to consumers, so brands must seek to build a reputation for being firm on data protection.
“That said, consumers are also expecting brands to improve their experience,” he adds. “Technology is an excellent way to do so, but evolution in the way brands interact with their customers should not be guided by technology, but rather by the wants and needs of the customers.”
Forrester also foresees a move towards mutually beneficial data collection in future, characterised by consumers maintaining more control. “Consumers are happy to share their data, so long as they receive a better service or experience in return,” says Giron. A 2016 Forrester survey of US online adults found that a not-insignificant three in 10 respondents noted that they don’t mind companies contacting them with relevant offers, even if they have not opted in to receive communications. “Relevance and transparency are key,” Giron explains.
A new service for 2019 from Amazon in the US, Amazon Sampling, sees the ecommerce behemoth ploughing ahead with improving the customer experience, by bringing its consumers onboard as beneficiaries of its wealth of data. The service uses machine learning to examine behaviour data on the Amazon website and connect brands with potential customers identified as lovers of makeup, or coffee, for example, with Amazon acting as a third-party logistics provider.
There is no obligation for the customer to purchase or review any products they receive. While the company declined to comment on its rollout strategy for the service in Asia it seems likely that its company’s future ambitions will be informed by the service’s performance and reception in the US.