Crisis and Opportunity Around Digital Identity

I sat down to write this story and…Panera Bread? Really? That’s today’s data breach headline? I guess it moves Facebook and Cambridge Analytica below the fold for a news cycle or two. After all, the exposure of 37 million customer records (per Krebs, who knows about these things) is no small potatoes.

Certainly there’s a sense in the air that U.S. consumers might reaching the limit of their tolerance when it comes to non-consensual scraping, sale, and use (let alone outright theft) of their personally identifying information. With GDPR dawning over Europe, the rest of the world is bound to ask why they don’t benefit from similar data protections.

Who better to respond to these concerns than an architect turned Internet obsessive? Rooly Eliezerov was a member of the small group which created identity management platform Gigya in Tel Aviv more than a decade ago (it’s now part of SAP Hybris); and now he’s the author of The Digital Identity Crisis, from John Wiley & Sons.

“I think we’re identifying two trends. One, people care about their identity more than ever, whether in the way we dress, or how we communicate.  People use digital means — like Facebook, obviously — to design their identity. The other trend is that we’re spending more of our lives online. This creates a digital identity which is very rich and says a lot about who we are. We’ve kind of lost control over that identity. We don’t control parts of who we are. We don’t know where this data goes, or how it’s being used.”

Eliezerov’s book reviews opportunities created by this rich data environment, but also looks at the risks and responsibilities which go along with that. Might people start pulling back from sharing information about themselves? That’s a daunting prospect for brands investing so heavily in collecting and activating customer data.

“I’m worried for those brands that are not taking the right path,” said Eliezerov. “My belief is that people will share more, but with organizations they trust, and where they get value. As an example, think of Alexa. Currently it’s turned on only when you give a command. But Amazon might one day tell people, keep Alexa on; we’ll be able to know everything going on in your house; we’ll even be able to tell that your developing a disease, and maybe save your life. If people trust Amazon, and get incredible value, they’ll share more and more.”

From my perspective, some big platforms — okay, Facebook — seem to have a mind-set about personal data developed in the early days of the Internet, which has not kept up with the volume and velocity at which that data is now created, processed, and often shared. “I think the point is that the Internet began as a jungle,” Eliezerov agreed, “with cookies and data being bought and sold without people’s knowledge. Now we’re going through a transition, with [in Europe] GDPR offering greater transparency and control. This transition is not simple, not only on the operational side, but also with state of mind. Trust is a key word for marketers these days, and there should be a shift in state of mind to ‘What data do I need?’ rather than just collecting everything.”

Specifically, brands need to take a fresh look at what they really need. Take last names, said Eliezerov. They’re assumed to be valuable data points. In fact, many consumers would be more comfortable if brands didn’t know exactly who they were; and, unless a brand is shipping products, last names are probably not really needed.

Something LinkedIn said at Adobe Summit was that it planned voluntarily to implement GDPR worldwide (something Facebook and Google, among many others, are evidently seeking to avoid). Will we see a shift towards a European data model in the U.S.? “I think GDPR will echo here,” said Eliezerov. “I believe Mark Zuckerberg wants to do the right thing, but Facebook still needs to figure out the right way to conduct [their business]. The market is still not mature enough to handle the situation that so much of our data is out there.”

There’s a huge opportunity for brands, in Eliezerov’s view. “Where companies already have some kind of relationship [with the customer], instead of investing in messaging and brand recognition, they will invest in the relationship and in trust. It goes beyond just the transaction. It’s an opportunity to offer more than just a product. You become part of the identity of this person, this customer.”

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