Opinions & Guest Posts

[Column] Andrew Bourne: It’s time to get serious about user data


Over the past few years, tech-savvy customers and younger, more dynamic, employees have forced businesses in all sectors to completely change their way of operating. But with that transformation has come an unprecedented threat in the shape of the harvesting and misuse of personal data by technology vendors.

For their part, customers expect every company they interact with to use technology in a way that makes their lives simpler and more efficient. After all, if they can change insurers or buy groceries with a few taps of their smartphone, why shouldn’t they be able to do the same when it comes to investing or getting property-buying advice?

Employees, meanwhile, expect to be able to interact with their companies in the same way they do with the products and services they themselves use as consumers.

But if organisations aren’t careful with the technology vendors they use, they may not only be putting their customers at risk, but also their own reputation and ultimately, their bottom line. As organisations evaluate their path forward, it is therefore critically important to step back and determine what they are giving up to rapidly stay ahead.

From a personal perspective, it is generally understood that using Google, Facebook, and Twitter comes with a compromise – people pay for these free services by allowing them to track their online behaviour constantly, giving up control of their data. They are, essentially, “surveillance companies”.

The majority of websites monitor customers, users, and prospective customers through cookies; small lines of code designed to track a visitor. Companies pay significant amounts to access the information these cookies collect, so they can target them with advertising. This happens secretly, and without an individual being aware their data has been packaged and distributed to other companies with ulterior motives. What we must recognise is that it happens in the business-to-business (B2B) world as well.

B2B companies allow surveillance companies to track their users while on their properties. Surveillance in the form of trackers can be found everywhere on B2B websites. Salesforce, SAP, WorkDay, NetSuite, and Slack, common applications in today’s professional environments, all employ surveillance tools that track things such as user browsing habits.

It’s not surprising that most Kenyans feel a massive disconnect between how their personal data should be treated and how it actually is. According to a recent Deloitte survey, 75% of respondents are worried about how their personal data is being used.

B2B companies use products and services from surveillance companies in exchange for their users’ data, but users are not informed about it. This practice happens on websites, and it happens on mobile devices. It is everywhere.

Data is priceless, and safeguarding it should be an organisation’s greatest responsibility. It’s important to challenge any company that collects and sells user data to stop adjunct surveillance to protect – and respect – customer privacy.

All organisations should ask if their technology vendor is running its products on a public cloud, where they can track you or client’s behaviour or data. Most public cloud companies also have ad-based business units, and as we know, ads and privacy don’t mix. In order to remove trackers from all ad-supported companies, have they developed tools internally? Where are the “Trojan horses” within the confines of their products?

It has been said that data has surpassed oil in value. For businesses who grow by exploiting consumer’s personal data, it’s gold dust. Sure, some things can be monetised; personal data should not be one of them.

Andrew Bourne is Zoho’s Regional Manager for the Africa region and is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

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