Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Privacy-Protecting Systems Are The New Green

Let’s take a break from Customer Data Platforms to do some trend-spotting. I spy with my little eye…privacy systems!

Specifically, there's a crop of systems that are privacy-safe alternatives to dominant social, search, email and other common consumer technologies. One well known example is DuckDuckGo, which positions itself as “a search engine that doesn’t track you”.  But there are plenty of others.  Some that have recently caught my attention include:
  • Brave, a browser that lets users decide which ads they’ll see and blocks advertisers from seeing behavioral details
  • Anagog, which let mobile apps track behaviors and make predictions while keeping all data on the device
  • ProtonMail, an encrypted email service  (it's one of a dozen alternatives in that market)
  • Vero, an ad-free social network
  • Chatterbox, a privacy-safe smart speaker for kids
  • Aegis One “mini-computer” for anonymous Web browsing, from a company so privacy-conscious that they apparently don’t publish their contact information (which may take things a bit too far)
A thorough search would surely turn up more examples. You could also add add products whose purpose is privacy, like ad blockers or proxy servers; the gazillion contenders in the pay-people-to-watch ads industry; privacy-enhancing extensions to standard products such as Google Chrome and Firefox; and, perhaps most prominent, the privacy-centered positioning of Apple.

In other words, privacy-protecting systems are a big and growing business.  Privacy is the new green: the cool virtue signifier for consumers and businesses alike.

This is worth noting because industry conventional wisdom has long held that consumers don’t really care about privacy, despite claims to the contrary. The core evidence has been that even people who say they care about privacy are willing to give up their personal data for the tiniest of incentives, whether monetary discounts or convenience. There’s still plenty of data along those lines, such as this Mulesoft study, which found that 49% of consumers would share personal data to get personalized service.  But the same surveys show a substantial minority don’t want their data tracked at all and many have stopped using big social media platforms due to privacy concerns. (See also this Harris Poll report for another set of similar statistics.)

It’s hard to find consistent data over time but it’s a safe bet that this GlobalWebIndex report is correct that consumers' privacy concerns have grown sharply in recent years.

The implications of this are intriguing. There’s a reasonable possibility that we’ll soon gain access to an alternative universe of online systems that protect rather than destroy consumer privacy. If government regulators finally step up their protection of consumers – as is already happening with laws like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act – these systems will have a significant head start over existing products, not to mention vastly more credibility. The result could be a tipping point when network effects kick in and privacy-centric systems suddenly pull a mass audience away from the current, data-fueled incumbents.

That’s still a long shot, if only because the incumbent firms have huge revenues that give them the resources to fight back. But a fundamental change in consumer attitudes could make their brands so toxic that no amount of investment would save them once consumers recognize there are viable, privacy-safe alternatives. 

How will you know if this is actually happening? Keep your eyes out for three things:

  • funding announcements from venture capital firms that specifically cite the privacy-preserving features of their investments
  • evidence that consumers are paying real attention to privacy, based not just on surveys about attitudes but on actual behaviors (such as the decline in Facebook use, which is already happening)
  • a Scott Brinker/Terry Kawaja style logoscape of privacy-enhancing versions of standard consumer technologies

If you’re looking for a much deeper analysis of Internet privacy and other trends, take a look at the Mozilla Foundation’s recent Internet Health Report.