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Online Consumer Privacy – Our Industry must be Better

“Privacy, to us, is a human right. It’s a civil liberty,”

Tim Cook, Apple, 2018

Over the last ten years there has been a massive increase in focus on online consumer privacy (user privacy). But still, every week we hear of a new breach, theft, poor implementation or just aggressive use of data collected for other reasons. For example, TikTok was recently exposed for, against android policy, collecting massive amounts identifying data from customer phones. Bad actors and good companies with bad decisions are probably equally to blame. More recently we have seen initiatives and changes coming from companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft to ratchet up the protection of user privacy via changes to devices and operating systems. This is a big step forward but is simply not enough. While consumers bear a portion of the responsibility, it is incumbent on the tech industry to be better. To design in privacy from the beginning, and not as an afterthought.

The consumer demographics and personas around privacy are many and complex. To greatly simplify it there essentially three groups. 1) People who strive to be as private as they can, 2) people who are generally not concerned with privacy, and 3) a large group in the middle that are all too frequently exposed. In this third group, some try but cannot figure privacy settings and methods out.  Some are just unaware of the privacy pitfalls, in a “what I don’t know won’t hurt me” state. Some realize they are making a tradeoff in privacy but do it for “free access” or convenience or personalization or some other reason. Others still assume, that as an industry, we are going to protect them.  The reality is this middle grouping, by far the largest, is consistently taken advantage of by a combination of bad actors and companies that are just willing to push the limits of what is legal, as opposed to what is right .

On the industry side of things, we generally know and understand how this works and can assess the risks to consumer privacy. However, there is history in the technology space of assuming the tech we develop will only be used for good. Too many of us abstract away the bad use cases and the bad actors. We willfully ignore some portion of the downside in all our technology. Or we pretend that the consumer has what they need to make a “good choice” on their own, while deep down knowing that is not the case. We know that most consumers will not, or cannot, protect themselves. There are also those who will point to the lack of regulations and say “hey, what we are doing is legal”. Finally, we see those who just view the consumer with a PT Barnum-esqe view – “a sucker is born every day”.

Ultimately, the tech industry must step up and lead the way on privacy issues. We cannot depend on the consumer to make the right choices. Time and experience show us this is not the case. The erosion of consumer privacy clearly leads to a general loss of trust, something we have enough of in the world already.

The big Operating System and Device makers are moving in the right direction and the rest of the industry needs for follow along quickly. Yes, there are consequences in terms of how our networks will function. There are complexities to supporting consumer privacy while maintaining convenience and personalization. As an industry we need to support the push to privacy and innovate. We need new technologies. We need new business models. We need new thinking. At LEVL, we are working at the core of the network to innovate new methods of device identity. A technology that supports user privacy and enables user personalization, convenience and value-added services. Its time to be part of the solution.

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tim colleran