Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

The Great #Data Overload Part 3: Differentiating in a #Digital World

Have you noticed that what was once old is new again? In particular, I’m talking about traditional direct marketing techniques, such as door-to-door sales, print circulars, and telephone cold calling. It’s as if businesses realise that to be heard and to get noticed in the digital world, you have to do something different or unexpected, and nobody expects to see a door-to-door salesperson these days!

MBPI mostly work from a home office, and in recent months I have had door-knockers trying to sell me car tyres, energy-saving devices and fire extinguishers. That’s in addition to the telesales calls persuading me to switch phone and utility providers, take out insurance or upgrade my security software (yes, I know that last one is probably a scam). Plus, more and more local businesses and tradespeople are using good old-fashioned leaflets and letter box drops (which is interesting, given that around 58% of local search is done on a mobile device).

Why are some advertisers reverting to this form of direct marketing?

I can think of several reasons:

  • They need to cut through the digital noise and reach their target audience via “novel” promotional tactics.
  • Their products and services are less-suited to on-line or in-app purchasing decisions.
  • Their sales activities are focused on acquiring existing customers from competitors, a conversion process more likely to succeed via personal contact.
  • Or simply, the costs make more sense.

Why is it important to differentiate? 

It’s 10 years since “Blue Ocean Strategy” was published, which stressed the need to stand apart from your competition (“avoid the shark-infested waters”). The message is even more relevant today, because the ubiquity of social media and content marketing platforms means that everyone has access to the same tools, and it’s not that difficult to play technology catch up; and while there may be good reasons for your business to engage with these channels to market, you also need some alternatives, like offering direct customer engagement that is not wholly reliant upon on-line and digital. That’s why some banks are opening more branches as part of their growth and customer acquisition strategy, why some retailers are offering “buy on-line, collect in-store”, and why some service companies are moving to an integrated, end-to-end customer experience, so that customers get the same person helping to resolve their problem from start to finish.

How to differentiate?

Standing out from the crowd (for the right reasons!) is critical to attracting customer attention. Competing on price alone is typically a race to the bottom where nobody wins. Getting noticed, especially when everyone is using the same marketing tools and sales offers, may mean doing something unusual or unexpected (for example, ALDI‘s “anti-ads”) as part of your marketing campaign. Or connecting directly with your audience in a way that doesn’t rely on “Likes”, “Shares” or “Follows”.

Sometimes it’s as simple as as this leaflet (shown above) found in my letter box the other day. At first, I thought it was a flyer for a local bar. Then, I noticed it was promoting a new smart phone app. On closer inspection, the flyer comprised a printed sheet hand-pasted onto a page torn from a magazine. That’s a lot of manual effort to promote a digital product, but using a lo-tech solution that totally makes sense! (No doubt, it appeals to the hipster crowd, ’cause retro’s cool, right?) So, the element of surprise (if that was the intention) worked – it got my attention because I wouldn’t have expected to receive a leaflet for a new app.*

Next week: “Why? Because we’ve always done it this way…”

Notes

* For an interesting story on the power of the unexpected, see Adam Posner’s talk on customer loyalty programs.

 

The Great #Data Overload Part 2: Is #Digital Making Us Dumber?

The pursuit of digital (and by implication, many data-related activities) is making us dumber. Whether it’s constant multi-tasking, the need for instant gratification, the compulsion to always be “on”, or the ease of access to content and connections, there’s actually a law of diminishing returns in trying to capture and engage with all this “stuff”.

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 10.24.54 am

Image © 2014 Universal Pictures

Consequently, our decision-making is increasingly governed by a hair-trigger mechanism – a single-click here, a right-swipe there, a “Like”/”Share” here, there, everywhere – which makes the outcome far less important than the instantaneous and self-validating process (“I Tweet therefore I am”). The quality of our interactions and relationships risks being reduced to a single lowest common denominator of the “fear of missing out” (#FoMo).

Current business practises focus on lean, agile and flexible – meaning that we have to get used to operating in a rapidly moving environment. However, agility is not helped by either procrastination or rash calls.

Faced with these demands on our attention, how can we come to a truly informed opinion or considered conclusion? The trick is knowing whether or not you are required to respond (not everything is relevant, vital or critical that it needs your constant or immediate participation – sometimes silence is golden). If you must make a call, then know when you have enough (hopefully, the “right”) data to make a rational and reasonable decision.

How do we build a capacity for calm, considered and constructive engagement with the digital world?

Part of the challenge is changing our (recently acquired) habits and behaviours. Speaking to friends and colleagues, there is a growing realization that reaching for your smart phone just before going to sleep (or as soon as you wake up), or constantly checking for status updates, is a noxious habit. Apart from the impact it has on our brain activity, it is also reinforcing our belief that this is normal, that we are somehow subservient to these devices, and that interacting with the digital environment takes priority over everything else. I know, I’m as guilty as the next person (watching the tennis on TV while checking the cricket scores on my iPhone…), but I am also trying to be more critical of my own digital consumption:

  • Not responding immediately to every e-mail – this is about time management skills as much as anything else; the faster you respond, the more you raise expectations that you will always answer straightway
  • Unsubscribing to mailing lists – in recent weeks, I have been unsubscribing to various newsletters because I was simply no longer interested in them or because they were no longer useful; if something’s important enough, I’ll no doubt find out about it from another source
  • Being selective about social media – I’ve written about this before in the context of authenticity and personal branding; in short, I find it essential to use different social media tools for different purposes (and to use each tool differently). That way, I manage to keep some separation between various parts of my professional and personal lives – at the very least, it acts as a helpful filter between the public and private
  • Choosing on-line connections carefully – this is another topic I have covered in a previous blog; not all our interactions are equal, and other than some basic relationship filters, most social network platforms don’t allow us to distinguish between friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and someone we met at a conference.* So, I generally decline unsolicited “friend” requests if I have not actually met or interacted with the person previously, or if I cannot find relevant mutual connections, or if I do not see what value I can add by being connected to this person.
  • Limiting notifications and status updates – similar to managing in-bound e-mail, I tend to switch off/ignore real-time notifications and updates. Instead, I prefer to check-in no more than once or twice a day, rather than always being logged in.

Finally, I’m hoping to develop a status setting for my smart phone that responds to all incoming notifications with messages such as: “Neither on nor off, merely resting”, “taking a mental pause”, “out to lunch”, or “making time for reflection before I respond”.**

Next week: Differentiating in a digital world

Notes:

* I recently heard about Humin, which is sort of moving in this direction, but it’s really a personalised CRM tool for your smart phone

** Apple’s “Do Not Disturb” function only supports “on/off” with respect to phone calls, and with a limited scope to filter contacts

A couple of No-No’s for content marketers

If you are just getting started in content marketing, or if social media is still a bit of a novelty for your organisation, there are a couple of things you should definitely avoid when attempting to use third-party content for your own promotional purposes: don’t misappropriate, and don’t misrepresent.

All marketers will be alert to false, deceptive or misleading advertising. More experienced content developers should also understand legal issues such as plagiarism, copyright infringement, passing-off and libel. However, even seemingly innocent and well-intentioned references made to third-party content may inadvertently border on unconscionable conduct.

Last week, I had the rather disturbing experience of a company attempting to use my blog to promote a service, and in a way that not only implied I was endorsing that service, but also suggested that my blog was somehow the reason why customers should sign up for it.

I found this problematic for three reasons:

First, I had no knowledge of or connection with this particular service, and the promotional message gave the impression I was endorsing it, which was obviously misleading, and it quoted my article out of context. At an extreme level, if I ever wrote a blog about the “10 reasons why I take public transport”, and then a political party co-opted my content to say “10 reasons why you should vote for our transport policy”, that would be misappropriation (of my content) and misrepresentation (of my views).

Second, even though the service referred to was being offered for free, if the company had managed to generate new clients via this particular campaign, there’s no direct benefit to me or my business, but lots of benefit to the company and/or its partners. In this increasingly self-directed, interconnected and collaborative environment, it’s important to make sure we are all “paying it forward” in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. (I have no problem with receiving a referral fee or a direct benefit in kind if my efforts have been instrumental in securing new customers for your business!)

Third, I am fortunate that a number of my blog articles have been re-syndicated via social media and other channels. In writing about third-party products and services, I am very careful not to endorse specific businesses or brands, other than to mention names (and link to relevant sites). Where I am providing criticism, I endeavour to do so under the auspices of “fair comment”. This is important when establishing credibility with an audience: that my content is seen to be authentic, that I demonstrate awareness about the purpose and context of my blog, and that I attribute whenever I am referencing or citing third-party content. (See an earlier blog I wrote on this topic) But, if in doubt, always ask the content owner in advance before linking, referencing, quoting, attributing or re-contextualising their content.

Finally, if I can be of any assistance in relation to your own content marketing, please let me know via this site.