There’s a lot of discussion these days about the privacy tradeoff that comes with our digital lives. Generally, the argument says that, by and large, consumers give up more than they get in return—and, often, unwittingly.
It’s a discussion that suggests an overriding question: Is what third parties learn through their digital surveillance a fair or transparent exchange of value?
Recently, Acxiom made news by lowering the veil in its data collection efforts, allowing consumers a glimpse into their digital footprints. It was a bold first effort toward what is likely the inevitable direction as the digital revolution rolls forward.
Whether such digital surveillance is fair and equitable is a question that’s surfacing broadly in business and sociological discourse. This weekend, I read a New York Times Magazine excerpt from Dave Eggers latest book, Circle. It’s fictional but familiar in its pitch-perfect depiction of a high flying Silicon Valley company steeped in community values, where transparency is the highest-order virtue. Here, the boundaries between public and private data blur, and cultural assimilation means profound transparency.
The corporate mantra says it all: All That Happens Must be Known.
While the excerpt doesn’t reveal the full arc of the story, we can assume that the company uses social networks to mine the detail of its employees’ personal lives. It’s creepy, for sure, but what is perhaps creepier is when this data is collected without our involvement, which is generally the state of things today. Here, our expressed preferences and observed behaviors become marketers’ gold. Often, it means more relevant offers and experiences, which at least on some level, consumers are bound to appreciate—but it still begs the question:
Is this a fair exchange of value?
That was the question behind a Maverick Research project I worked on with my colleagues Richard Fouts and Mike Gotta. For those unfamiliar with this format, Gartner’s Maverick Research seeks to disrupt conventional thinking by looking beyond our traditional research agendas, exploring intentionally edgy topics.
Our project contemplates a world where personal data is part of a fair and transparent exchange of value between brands, aggregators and consumers through direct and brokered relationships. It envisions the convergence of data-driven strategies and business models with wearable devices and digital ethnographic techniques. The result is, indeed, a world where all (or substantially all) of what happens is known.
But, importantly, what we envision stipulates that this knowledge comes with a price—and an obligation to a fair exchange of value. Over time, consumers will surely demand that it does.