Data are the new oil, everything is about the data. And getting as much of it as you can.
Michael Fertik was a pioneer in helping people control their personal information in the digital universe. Reputation.com, which he launched in 2006, promises to provide individuals and businesses with “the tools to monitor, manage, and secure your information on the Internet.” In exploring issues around data collection and privacy for our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond report, we talked to Fertik about topics including basic best practices for brands, the rise of data as a form of currency and why “data is the new oil.”
What are some significant developments that have changed the landscape when it comes to data privacy?
One trend is that storage is now free. And so, in the last few years, it’s become cheaper to store something forever than it is to actually delete it, and that’s never been true until now. No. 2, search is extremely powerful and getting more so. No. 3, a set of technologies that we now use for massively scaled analytics like Hadoop and MapReduce, all these technologies are enabling more and more people to call themselves, accurately, data scientists.
The more data science is happening, the more it creates a fourth trend, which is, datasets that we never thought would be connected to one another are now connected to one another. So someone might see you on Google Glass, and that’s the facial recognition dataset that’s also geo-located. And also there’s enough technology to figure out the price of your shoes and maybe what direction you’re walking and how tall you are and whether your posture is good and who you are with. And whether you’ve gained weight or lost weight since the last you were seen.
And the ubiquity of the smartphone, right? And of course the smartphone is not static. So the first phones are now on the market that are always on and always on listening mode. So you effectively now have your own nanny campaign for yourself. Also, the cellphone is going to connect payment data with other data for the first time, and that’s a big difference.
I’m often credited with inventing the phrase “Data is the new oil.” I’m not sure I invented it, but data are the new oil, everything is about the data. And getting as much of it as you can.
So if we’re not at the end of anonymity, we’re pretty darn close?
The main mistake people make about the future is that we think about the future as the present tense with one variable changed. Instead, you’re going to see a set of technologies that are built to either mask or dis-inform the machine. I agree that the tide is thoroughly against people right now who would like to preserve classic anonymity. But there will be technologies—there are technologies—that will either mask or deceive the machine about where you are or who you are. There will be a need for them, and they’ll become easier and easier to use.
One truth that you can articulate about every single technology that’s ever been made is that its net effect was to reduce friction for an objective. Those technologies that you and I are talking about now are technologies that are actually intended to increase friction. And technologies that are intended to increase friction are not natively easy to use. So the task of those of us who believe that data control or data privacy is feasible, at least in some applications, the path is to make that as friction-free and easy to do as possible.
Do you think people embraced mobile phones or social media before they truly understood what the tradeoff was?
I don’t think they yet understand what the tradeoff is, but they’re coming up to speed. But they’re still having trouble pointing to specific harms. They just feel that it’s kind of bad still. I think they’re right—it’s just kind of bad. There are specific harms—it’s just hard to find them or articulate them or point to them.
So should people get to decide, “I’m OK with sharing some data, I’m not OK with sharing other data”?
There are zero point zero people on the planet right now who are informed enough to make that decision. I include myself. Nobody who thinks they’re making that decision, including the most informed people in Silicon Valley, none of them really knows where their data flows, including the guys who own the companies that are accumulating it and selling it off. So you can’t actually have an informed opinion right now. It’s impossible; it’s too opaque.
You can have an informed opinion that says, “Well, I don’t mind having an ad shown to me on the Yahoo! home page for Nike shoes, because I like running.” But you have no idea where the data actually flows. Yahoo! sells the data to one guy, who then sells it to another guy, who sells it to another guy.
So must we, as a society, redefine our concept of anonymity and privacy?
I think they’re being redefined. But here’s the important thing: It is both incorrect and incorrectly defeatist to imagine the future will just stay the same with one variable change, which is more data flowing about you out into the wilderness. It is very possible that you will have increasingly large amounts of control over some amounts of your data and then increasingly less control over other amounts of your data.
Of course, the more data that’s out there, the more valuable the data are. The question then becomes, what tools are useable or exist to do this stuff that we’re describing? I’m not sure anyone is really going to be able to deceive the Internet about their age much longer. But that doesn’t mean that people are going to have to know where you go every day and whom you go with. I’m not comfortable with that idea. I want to be able to turn off all geo-tracking and signaling to the mother ship.
We will know that [companies] are serious about respecting your privacy as soon as they make that easy. Because the whole existence of these companies is to take every obstacle away from making it easier to buy stuff and give you offers—which, by the way, I value. The only test of their seriousness in respecting your privacy will be if they also make it trivially easy to protect your data and never sell it to anybody else.
How can brands begin to do this?
I want three things. One, I want to be able to know what you know about me. Another way of saying it is, I want a copy of it or I want to be able to have a copy of it forever. Two, I want to be able to easily instruct you to destroy it or not to collect it. And three, I want to be able to tell you how you are permitted to share it onwards, if at all.
I like the fact that [my] news tells me more about the financial market than it might tell me about golf, which does not interest me. But I’d like to know how you know that about me, and I’d like to have a copy. And I’d like to be able to tell you not to collect and store my data, and I’d like to be able to tell you not to sell it, give it away, share it with anybody else. I think that’s a correct consumer bill of rights.
I believe that some technology, like the one I’m building and have built, is going to make all the difference in the world. The best practice will be the practice of a data vault—and so, making this very easy and transparent and knowable.
Do you envision a future where individuals will conduct transactions with companies based on personal data?
There are four things I can think of giving somebody through their data vault. One is status. No. 2 is offer. Offer does not mean just a discount like Groupon, it also means an offer for employment. An offer can cover any manner of things you would otherwise not get. Third is cash. Fourth is privacy, meaning you actually get to buy something without their knowing you’re buying it from them.
Each of these four things has a different champion inside the corporate world. The idea is that we shouldn’t just think of this as a cash amount that we’re going to give you in exchange for your data.
People say they care about personal privacy, but they usually don’t do much about it. How come?
Our company now has more than 1.6 million customers. So I think that it’s no longer a subject of debate that people actually care about it. That’s a large enough number that you could say people care about it and are willing to pay. That doesn’t mean a billion people will do it, but the point is that people are taking action.
Now, to be clear, something about your data is still abstract and hard for people to think about, which is why privacy is such a tough nut to crack.
What is your company doing differently from others in this space that have been less successful?
I think we just have better products, better marketing, better management, better features. It’s a fair claim to make that we’re good at those things. It would also be fair to ask what are the other guys not doing well? But it’s still early.
It will catch on for other people and places. It’s got to be as easy to use as anything else that’s successful as a technology. Like Snapchat—Snapchat is Exhibit A in the desirability and utility of an easy-to-use, pro-privacy technology.