Privacy and Consumer Needs in 2021

For the last ten years, and especially in the last five, there have been mounting concerns over the risks surrounding user data. In this post, we'll be asking how it's affecting the future of business? And, how the importance of user privacy (as well as ethics and values) can lead you to build a better company.

The digital revolution that started at the turn of the millennium has been one of the major shifts in the future of mankind. It's been the source of increased opportunities around the world, has led to a new generation of entrepreneurs and startups, and has radically redefined the status quo. 

But it hasn't all been good.

For the last ten years, and especially in the last five, there have been mounting concerns over the risks surrounding user data. Personal information is a key part of the interactions we have in the digital sphere, and as we become a more tech-educated populous, many of us are realizing that our personal information isn't always treated with the appropriate level of care

In this post, we're going to explore the rise in user privacy concerns, how it's impacting the future of business, and how companies can learn from user privacy to build a better company. 

Let's get into it. 

The rise of user privacy concerns

In a study that took place in July of 2020, it was found that more than half of the global population had concerns about personal information being shared online. That same group also had issues with the user privacy practices of the majority of data collectors. 

Media like The Social Dilemma documentary is resonating with audiences. Individuals are starting to become more aware of how often their data is taken, and how little they know about why, for how long, or to what ends. 

This has led to a massive spike in user privacy concerns in the last few years. Companies like Apple are campaigning on privacy, and politicians are working to pass legislation that will regulate privacy practices by digital companies. 

As the excitement of new tech is becoming familiar, people are reexamining their relationship to that tech and advocating for more user privacy rights. 

How user privacy is shaping the future of business

This shift in how the public views and understands user privacy is already becoming pivotal in the way business is conducted digitally. Below are several real-world, recent examples of how user privacy is changing the tech landscape. First on our list is one of the biggest stories in tech from the last year. 

Apple, Facebook, and the battle for iOS 14

Last June, at WWDC 2020, Apple announced iOS 14. Among some lighter QOL updates like widgets and an App Library, Apple revealed that it was taking numerous measures to improve user privacy on the iOS platform. That includes expanding Apple Sign In, new alerts for when the camera, clipboard, and microphone are being monitored, and opt-ins for certain data tracking features. 

It's this last feature, opt-ins for data tracking, that has caused a publicity battle between Apple and Facebook. These opt-ins prevent apps on iOS from gathering data without informing users of what data is being collected and what for. Previously, this data was gathered by all kinds of apps for all kinds of reasons, without most users' knowledge or consent. 

This feature has the potential to severely limit the ability of platforms like Facebook to funnel data to third-party advertisers as well as its own databases. Despite Facebook's ability to sway public opinion in its favor, however, users are opting out of Facebook's tracking en masse and many are leaving the platform altogether. 

DuckDuckGo and privacy-centric search

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For the average internet user, there's only one search engine: Google. A few others might use alternatives like Bing or Ecosia, but it's safe to say that Google has a nearly-global monopoly on search: 70.38% on desktop and 93.87% on mobile. A growing number of individuals, however, are switching to DuckDuckGo for their internet searches. 

DuckDuckGo's claim to fame is that it's a private search engine. Unlike Google Search, which uses your search history to build up a profile on you for advertisers et al., DuckDuckGo doesn't collect any information from its users. It makes a profit from non-personalized ads. The engine saw a 62% growth in users in 2020

DuckDuckGo is a member of the fast-growing segment of privacy-centric apps and services. Users are turning to email accounts, cloud storage, and services that don't tie any personal information to the user. And in many ways, DuckDuckGo is leading the user privacy movement, proving that data collection isn't required or even beneficial — to users, that is.

Even Google is making user privacy a priority

While it's become common knowledge that Facebook is one of the most abusive towards user privacy, Google has had a history of misusing and exploiting user data. However, the tech giant has started to change its position in a significant and encouraging way. 

For instance, Google has started to change the way it approaches its search engine. One way that this is taking shape is that Google is looking to reduce the number of searches you conduct to find the information you're looking for, reducing the number of queries (i.e., data) that you're sending them. 

Another change Google is enacting is to make the difference between sponsored content (ads) and unbiased search results clearer. This is following studies that have shown 90% of users can't tell the difference between an ad and a genuine source of information. Google's goal is to empower users by contextualizing and demystifying the content they consume through Google's platform. 

Privacy policies are far more complex than legal and medical documents

A recent and disconcerting post from the New York Times highlighted a serious issue with privacy policies from companies who collect data from users. 

Image source: The New York Times

In the article, the privacy policies of 150 popular companies (including Apple, Google, CNN, Wikipedia, eBay, Yahoo, Uber, and BBC) were analyzed via the Lexile test. This test measures the complexity of a piece of text based on vocabulary, length, and overall reading difficulty. The higher the Lexile score of a document is, the harder it is to understand.

Documents with a score of 1050 can be understood by the average 9th grader, while documents with a score of 1440 are typically associated with lawyers and doctors. 

In this study, however, it was uncovered that many of these privacy policies exceeded a score of 1440 by as much as 200 points. That means that even some lawyers would struggle to understand them, let alone the average consumer.

In a year-over-year analysis of Google's privacy policy, the New York Times found that each year, Google's document became easier to read. And there was a strong correlation between a decrease in complexity and the implementation of the GDPR policy. This lends credence to the idea that regulation plays a key role in making these policies more accessible to users. 

What can businesses learn from the increasing importance of user privacy?

Just as important as all of these stories and concerns around user privacy are the lessons that can be learned from them. It's clear that in today's age, businesses need to invest and champion user privacy. Below, we've highlighted some key ways that companies can go about doing this. 

Be proactive about transparency

The shift towards a more privacy-centric marketplace is favoring businesses that are proactive about transparency. Users are making a conscious choice to use privacy-first platforms, apps, hardware, and software, and companies need to connect with them.

To avoid being left behind or viewed in a negative light, it's important that companies not only make their services more transparent but make that transparency clear to their users. That could mean starting a privacy campaign, sending emails that let your customers know how you work to benefit their privacy, or being clear about your privacy policies. 

Gain trust by acting on user privacy values

Another key takeaway is that businesses need to act on privacy values. If you're at fault when it comes to having a wordy, tangled privacy policy that no one can understand, work with your team to change this. If you're tracking data that you know makes users uncomfortable, work to track less data more ethically. 

Often, this can lead to significant changes in your business model. It might change the way you advertise, store account information, or integrate your service with other platforms. In the long term, however, these changes will result in increased customer loyalty and a solid reputation. 

Consider collaborations carefully

In the digital age, it's common for businesses to rely on and work with all manner of apps, services, and digital solutions. Whether it's an automation platform, a customer service client, or a cloud database, businesses outsource many of their digital needs to others. 

When forming these partnerships, consider the privacy policies of your collaborations. Working with a company that has poor user privacy values can hurt your reputation, even when your business isn't engaged in any invasive behaviors. 

A personalized, modern service doesn't have to invade user privacy

As companies like Apple and DuckDuckGo are proving, there are ways to offer personal, exciting experiences without gathering copious amounts of personal data. By cutting back where you can and anonymizing the rest of your data, you can protect your users while still providing an excellent service.

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