The weaponisation of data: Why brands have a duty to treat their customers' data ethically

TalkTalk is the latest tech giant whose seemingly impenetrable data foundations have been infiltrated by online hackers, reportedly resulting in a small group of customers losing thousands of pounds.

The broadband supplier with 4 million customers made the embarrassing admission following angry customers taking their grievances to an online forum after receiving phone calls from fraudsters. The data breach involved a third party contractor which had legitimate access to customer accounts.

TalkTalk joins the likes of Sony and eBay, which have also suffered the consequences of hackers weaponising consumer and business data. Data is fast becoming the most valuable and dangerous commodity out there and it is companies’ responsibility to use consumer information ethically as terabytes (the golden nuggets of data) continue to divide and multiply.

Although 90 per cent of all data globally has only been collected in the last two years it seems there’s been a dramatic increase in data gathered from the smartphone boom. It feels like our every footstep is documented online and the incessant creepiness of re-targeted ads or personalised mail infiltrates our lives without our conscious control. With cookies and tags voyeur-ing every click, it’s fundamental that brands use data in both an ethical framework as well as making online consumer journeys more relevant and tailored for a more satisfying experience.

There was outrage last year over Facebook’s mood manipulation experiment. Perhaps the anger stemmed from Facebook being an inherently emotional tool with which people curate their lives. An EU ruling in 2014 demanded that Google implement the ‘right to be forgotten' which now lets people and companies manipulate their historical archives.

This ruling reflects the persistent need for brands to curate both data and content which could be to the detriment of consumers in making online decisions without the full benefit of context and hindsight. It also lends itself to the blurred question as to whether search engines should be classed as data controllers.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau says US revenue last year hit an all-time high of $42.8bn – a sizeable portion of this was based on selling targeted user data on Facebook and Google. The two giants have become the power couple of social identity and are the gatekeepers to our online personas, as millions of mobile internet users use 'social log-in', thus letting the two brands track our movements across the web.

Facebook is becoming more and more instrumental in marketing as it can hit the desired target audience with its revamped Facebook Atlas and can keep an eye on users’ identities across a plethora of devices.

Marketers are now in the optimum position to understand consumers’ trigger behaviour through both classic Mosaic research and more modern data driven techniques. Data can help support the more subjective role of Mosaic groupings. After all, can we as consumers be defined as 'transient renters' or 'city prosperity’ when the modern consumer’s purchasing habits are bi-polar, fragmented and scattered over a number of different devices?

The explosion of data leaves in its wake companies’ need for social responsibility and issues of online privacy are more important than ever. As Generation Z grows up with the smug label of 'digital natives', companies are starting to realise the savvy, ethical nature of their customers and the need to become trusted brands.

Arguably we have one of the most holistic data tools at our disposal for understanding the consumer: TGI and Mosaic data. This can determine our financial income, self-perception, views on charity and even the most trivial of information such as ‘Yes: I like to be tanned in winter too.’

TGI has even entered the murky world of politics. In 2005 the Conservatives intended to post their anti-immigration leaflets to households deemed via mosaic to be intolerant of outsiders. This wealth of data was first harnessed in the US and was credited in helping George Bush win the election. It could pinpoint seemingly petty details like 'Drinkers of Coors beer were more likely to vote Republican'.

Data profiling of individuals has seen a boom in the post 9/11 world according to privacy lawyer Tim Sparapani, because "governments were trying to prevent the next 9/11 by predicting who is related to whom, engaged in terrorist activity". Brands are increasingly starting to behave like political parties by using data on individuals to create more relevant brand positioning.

It seems that the companies that are the most trusted are those which make data meaningful and turn a data point into a person. Brands like Uber, Spotify and Netflix have excelled at making data relevant and a benefit to the consumer. Uber has nailed GPS tracking data coupled with excellent personalised customer service based on a rating system. Netflix and Spotify have developed perfect recommendation algorithms that evoke a sense of caring and ultimately win them loyal customers whilst creating a near monopoly within their respective categories.

It seems data logging is outside our conscious control, which will be further catalysed by the impending wearable tech boom and invasion of home hardware. There are just a few principles brands can follow which could make a world of difference in the eyes of the consumer:

People respond to transparency on where their personal data is going and it’s easy to forget in the tech saavy media bubble how many people are unaware of the data Big Bang. In a time of digital paranoia, transparency has never been so welcomed. 60 per cent of young Brits are willing to share their personal data, states a study by Gigya, provided brands make it clear what they’ll use it for.

Consumers become the most irate when brands ask too many questions via an impersonal, archaic platform. Companies need to be relevant and not behave like a nagging automated customer services line which insists “caller demand is unusually high” coincidentally every time you call. Keep data questions short and significant and keep giving the consumer the path to least resistance.

Give people a reason to share their data with you, besides the bottom line. 84 per cent of 18-34s are now happy sharing their personal data via social logins (Gigya) as long as they have “decent value exchange”. Although it could seem like a slightly self-inflated notion for people to view themselves as a valuable commodity, no one wants to be mugged off by the data big dogs and ultimately their behaviours are the cogs that drive the market.

Brands can no longer afford to operate in a Mad Men-style era where the consumer is silent. Social platforms have given way to an ongoing conversation where user-generated reviews make or break your brand identity.

Be a data altruist and use data to benefit both parties. Brands that are seen to be making our lives easier (see Uber) are the ones that are succeeding, opposed to those who are turning consumers into disposable products themselves.

Lara Enoch is a media planner at Arena

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