Privacy As a Competitive Advantage in Mobile

Over the past few months, the debate over privacy and its role in the continued evolution of information technology has been reinvigorated. To some extent, the controversy isn’t new, nor is it surprising. Whenever there’s disruption in the market and the boundary conditions are tested, there’s going to be consternation.

It’s also clear that if the mobile industry isn’t proactive in addressing consumer privacy head-on from a technical, business, education and compliance perspective, there will be a strong push to pressure the government to regulate an opportunity that hasn’t fully blossomed yet — and in the process, hamper its evolution.

In the digital economy, trust is the bedrock of the relationship between consumers and brands. Privacy is about the perception of control and transparency. While we expect corporations to roll out terrific products, any direct interaction with them should assume that our private information is not up for sale (at least not without explicit authorization). Any damage to that trust can not only destroy a brand’s reputation but open it up to lawsuits, government oversight and legislation.

Yet the mobile ecosystem, like that of online, has failed to take the issue of privacy as seriously as it should. The best way to address the issue of privacy is by ceding “control.” Only by giving customers the ability to determine when, how and who can access their data can the various facets of consumer privacy be adequately addressed. The more control customers have over managing their privacy, the more willing they’ll be to share their tastes, intent and desires — both explicitly and implicitly.

Mobile provides unprecedented capability and opportunity to personalize and target, to make every message and impression count. What it doesn’t provide is a way for customers to control what comes to them via tools they can access with the touch of a button or a finger. After all, one might be only interested in food- and beverage-related promotions and advertisements during the lunch hour or on vacation and will consider them an intrusion and/or ignore them in out-of-context situations.

Companies should work diligently to design their mobile campaigns around the following basic rules:

  • Be transparent
  • Listen to your customers
  • Give them control and access
  • Put strong policies, procedures and technology in place
  • Be aware of local laws/customs and cooperate/educate regulators
  • Provide value — in the form of savings, convenience, efficiency, timeliness or social currency
  • Ensure your partners adhere by the same principles (for example if users expunge personal data from your site, the relevant data should get deleted from your partners’ databases, too)

Another thing to keep in mind is that privacy requirements are going to be as diverse as the consumers using mobile services. Some will demand absolutely no leakage of information while others will care less. Some will like a simple on/off switch that controls privacy across applications and services with a touch of a button. Others will prefer 1,000 granular options to manage how their lives are shared and will get upset if their experience isn’t personalized to the nth degree. Solutions should address this wide array of requirements and not segment all users into one.

The mobile industry also needs to educate its consumers about sharing, privacy and advertising. Its various members need to work much closely together — warring factions only impedes progress. Finally, it needs to put forth effective enforcement strategies to weed out bad actors (and make sure its industry stalwarts aren’t the ones violating its guiding principles).

The mobile medium provides context, immediacy and personalization and a way to blur the line between ads and relevant, useful information that users can embrace. The winning solutions will be the ones that empower user privacy, not abuse it. Our focus should be to turn privacy into a competitive advantage, not a barrier.

Chetan Sharma is founder and president of the mobile and voice communications-focused Chetan Sharma Consulting and a GigaOM Pro analyst.