Do you remember the first time you got a pop up on your phone letting you know that traffic was light and you’d arrive at your destination on time if you left in five minutes, even though you didn’t even open a maps application? I know I was pretty impressed, a little confused, and maybe even a little violated.
As these types of notifications became more regular, I began to appreciate them, though I’d never relied on them (and I liked laughing at where google thought I may be going based on the time of day and direction I turned out of my driveway).
Pretty much every digital engagement today is personalized. Instagram serves me ads I’m definitely going to shop and posts I’m very likely to like. Spotify curates a playlist just for me every day. My news app shows me the articles I want to read. My favorite stores send me emails with products I’m likely to be interested in.
It’s amazing, I hardly have to think.
A few weeks ago I needed a new bathing suit, so I looked at one or two websites for stores I knew, but I didn’t see much I liked. Then, suddenly, everywhere I looked there were new bathing suit brands serving me ads, inviting me to discover their products. It was like having a personal shopper, “how about this one? or this one?” Now I have four new bathing suits. And I didn’t pay for a personal shopper. That’s the magic of personalization, it’s convenience without the cost. But we all know nothing is free.
The Cost of Convenience
Ok, so personalization isn’t really magic. It’s the result of a lot of investment in things like AI recommendation engines, CRM software, and people like me developing marketing strategies for brands, all of which are fueled by data. So the question becomes, how much data are you willing to give as payment? It’s worth it for Amazon to invest in personalization because smart suggestions convert to purchases. But, is it worth it to me to have every digital move tracked? Is that feeling of violation by Google knowing where I’m going worth me risking not getting alerted if traffic is heavier than usual?
Just as darkness is the absence of light, personalization is the absence of privacy. You just can’t have both at the same time.
Privacy champions highlight that access to user data and user profiling by companies is used for activities like targeted advertising which is generally harmless in nature. But, on the extreme end, they can be misused by the governments or someone in power for unethical purposes, especially if it is personally identifiable information.
Personalization advocates argue that companies are just interested in collecting data to understand patterns and trends, in order to enhance their service offering to better meet customer needs.
Companies now acquire other companies to get access to user data - take for instance the recent acquisition of Fitbit by Google (though they swear it’s about devices, not data). Fitbit has mountains of data about every user. Now Google won’t just know when you’re leaving for work. It will know how many steps you took getting ready in the morning, what your heart rate was, and how many hours you slept last night.
The tug-of-war is intense. Did that go too far? Is it a little scary that a tech company has that much information? Or is it exciting that the power of tech companies might very quickly lead to health breakthroughs in things like atrial fibrillation because of all that heart rate data?
Safeguarding Users' Information
Incidents like the infamous Facebook-Cambridge Analytica where the personal data of millions of users was compromised for political gain have forced companies to look at their data access and build strict policies around it.
In the case of Google’s Fitbit acquisition, global regulators forced a series of safeguards to separate the Fitbit data from the google ads data.
Broader policies are being put in place around the world in order to protect consumers. In the US, policymakers are in talks on new data privacy and security legislation. The EU has established GDPR guidelines that require user consent, and there will be more countries that follow suit.
Apple, an advocate of user privacy, addresses concerns with technology. They try to build systems that store user data on the devices instead of sharing it on the cloud. For example, a person’s biometric information such as their fingerprint or face ID is saved on the device and is never shared.
Where Do You Stand?
I have to admit, I’m happy to pay the price, for now. I don’t have anything to hide, so what if the internet thinks I’m having another baby just because I bought my friend a baby gift? I’d so much rather be followed around the internet by the shoes I looked at than by ads for horror movies (which I hate, and guess what? I never see trailers for them on YouTube, Facebook, or Netflix!) But, I don’t want Alexa listening to my family talk at dinner just to let me know sometimes what kind of mood my husband will be in when he gets home. If the reward increases to something more valuable, then maybe I’ll reconsider in the future. There’s no limit to what kinds of experiences future AI technology will enable, and only time will tell how much we’re willing to pay for them.