3 common-sense rules for ethical data use

3 common-sense rules for ethical data use


4 min read

With brand trust at an all-time low, it’s a good time to ask: is your organization doing the right thing with consumer data? 50% of consumers say they’d pay more for a brand that takes a stand on important issues. With privacy at the heart of a global reassessment of social media, big tech, and surveillance, organizations at the vanguard of this issue will win in 2022.

The good news is that playing fair isn’t all that complicated. “When in doubt, follow your heart,” says Andy Rossmeissl, CEO of Faraday, the leading customer prediction platform. “Our motto from the start has been ‘don’t be creepy,’ and it’s remarkable how far that can take you.”

Looking for specifics? Here are the top 3 rules for using customer data ethically:

Rule 1: Use identifiers people can recite from memory.

This rule sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly powerful. “Ask your mom if she knows any of her tracking cookies by heart,” suggests Rossmeissl. “Ask yourself what your mobile device ID is.” The digital surveillance panopticon relies on these long, unique strings of gibberish assigned to virtually every eyeball in the world.

Instead, ask yourself what identifiers you have that you can actually recite. “I have an address on my mailbox for all the world to see, and you probably do too,” says Rossmeissl. “I put my number in the phone book, and my email address is all over the Internet.”

Relying on real-world identifiers, or “known identities,” has the additional benefit of steering brands away from collecting and using anonymous behavior, such as data collected from unidentified web and mobile visitors. “Until somebody has identified themselves to you," explains Rossmeissl, "tracking their behavior is, frankly, creepy.”

Rule 2: Use data that comes from commercial behavior

“I call it the ‘laying in bed rule,’” Rossmeissl shares. “When I’m laying in bed and I read a news article on my tablet or like something on Instagram, that’s private. Watching me do that is creepy.” The surveillance of private behavior has rapidly normalized, much to the dismay of both privacy experts and, increasingly, consumers alike. A 2019 study found that nearly two thirds of Americans believe they can’t go through daily life without their data being collected.

And yet marketers have long known the power of data-driven growth practices. How can brands use consumer data while still respecting privacy? Rossmeissl shares:

We thought long and hard about this when we started Faraday in 2012. We drew on anthropology, architecture, history, and other disciplines for our research, but the result was fairly simple.

It turns out that commerce is one of the main reasons humans started to live in communities. Markets are some of the earliest forms of non-residential architecture we know of. No matter how you look at it, commerce and the marketplace have been with us longer than virtually any other social structure.

This provides a clue: humans are quite used to buying and selling, and they’re used to doing it in public. We have evolved an innate ability to operate in the marketplace, and an accompanying understanding that this behavior is public.

“What we put in our cart at the grocery store is public,” says Rossmeissl. “What we buy walking around a farmer's market is public. And when we buy online, there's an extension of this understanding. Engaging in commerce is a collaborative act — there's a buyer and a seller — and also a performative one.”

The upshot is that we instinctually treat data arising from commercial transactions as fair game. Luckily, this kind of data is not only the most ethical, but also some of the most powerful available for predicting subsequent consumer behavior. Faraday includes over 300 data points like this on virtually every US adult, but you can also procure your own from reputable licensing groups like Epsilon.

Rule 3: Let people easily opt out

“Imagine being in a store and being told you can’t leave,” says Rossmeissl. “That goes from creepy to nightmarish very quickly.”

The right to opt out is at the heart of CCPA, the landmark privacy legislation. And while the law only protects California residents, brands should meet its requirements across the board. Luckily, that’s quite simple: provide an easy to use opt-out link, and pass along opt-outs both up- and down-stream to your partners.

Beyond the fact that honoring opt-outs is actually good for business, it’s the right thing to do.

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