Industries in Depth

Why online privacy matters

Gary Kovacs
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Over the course of my life, I’ve witnessed several technology shifts, from mainframes to PCs, smartphones and tablets to wearables. With every shift, technology gets literally closer and closer to our skin. We are sharing information that is more personal and valuable, such as our sleep patterns, health data, how fast we drive and even the g-force of our cars as we turn a corner. And many of us are sharing this information without realizing it.

Recently, my 10-year-old daughter asked me to download a single-player, non-web-connected game for her. Aimed at eight to 12-year-old children, the game required the user to accept an agreement that was illegible on a mobile phone but which, upon further examination, said: “We and third-party service providers collect such information from you through your mobile device, including your name, user name, profile pictures, telephone number, device identifiers, email address, contacts, GPS location, browser history, chat or messaging activity.”

A lack of trust

Many consumers are becoming aware of the extent to which they are forfeiting their privacy when engaging online. Privacy is a rapidly growing concern, and consumers are increasingly sensitive to companies that fail to protect and respect it. A recent study clearly shows that almost half of respondents (49%) report that lack of trust prevented them from downloading apps or using them once they were installed. Over a third (34%) said lack of trust stopped them from buying mobile apps and services altogether. As more consumers begin to comprehend the extent to which companies capture and monetize their information, the damaging backlash against business has the potential to undermine the growth of every company that uses the internet to do business.

Signs of backlash are already emerging. Last autumn, Google lost ground in its fight against Europe’s “right to be forgotten” legislation, which gives Europeans the ability to hide their history on the internet. Hundreds of thousands of people have sent appeals to Google, hoping to prevent part of their personal history from showing up online. Some civil-society advocates are now urging the US Federal Trade Commission to compel Google to apply the right to be forgotten in the United States.

An invasion of privacy

Just a week after launching a Twitter app to help people in distress, the Good Samaritans in the UK pulled the app due to citizens’ concerns over privacy. With the app, Twitter users would receive private alerts, informing them of troubling posts from people they follow in the hopes that they’d reach out to these friends and offer support. Backlash ensued, however, with several accusing the Good Samaritans of increasing the vulnerability of already vulnerable people and damaging people’s trust in the organization as well as the social network as a place to talk about mental health issues.

Consumers have an inalienable right to privacy, and they will enforce this right by refusing to buy from companies that fail to protect their privacy. If companies don’t face this reality, ensuing backlash could completely undermine the growth of companies worldwide. There are steps we can and should take to remedy this.

How to empower consumers

First, we need to make tools and technologies much simpler and designed for human use. This will empower consumers to take greater responsibility for their digital privacy. Second, we need to adopt a “one page challenge”, which asks every company to put its entire privacy policy on one page that can be read via mobile device. This policy should answer questions such as: Why do you collect this data? What do you plan to do with it? Third, we need to educate users on how to engage on the internet.

Let’s not just create smart phones; let’s create smart users who are savvy in basic online practices that keep their information safe. Let’s create smart companies that comprehend the long-term benefits of strengthening customer relationships by keeping their trust. By proactively protecting the digital privacy rights of consumers, we protect the future viability of our businesses.

Have you read?
What is the internet of things worth?
Are security and privacy possible in the internet age?
Do we need an internet Bill of Rights?

Author: Gary Kovacs is CEO of AVG

Image: Entrepreneurs work at their computer laptops at an incubator of French high-tech start-ups in Paris, France, July 27, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

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Industries in DepthCybersecurity
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