What will drive change in 2019? Lena Roland, Managing Editor, WARC Knowledge, explores how the conversation around personal data is changing and what brands need to do about it. .

“We at Apple are in full support of a comprehensive federal privacy law in the United States.”

With this statement, Tim Cook, Apple CEO, in no uncertain terms, is positioning privacy and data ethics as a competitive advantage.

Speaking at a Data Protection and Privacy conference held in Brussels on 23rd October Cook did not hold back. Personal data “is being weaponised against us with military efficiency”, he declared. Digital profiles enable companies to “know users better than they know themselves” and this, he said, is akin to surveillance. Apple, treats its customers’ most personal data like “precious cargo” – and if it does, everyone else can too, he added.

Cook’s announcement is an astute one. Of all the FANG gang, Apple is in the strongest position to take this unique stance. Why? Because Apple makes most of its money from selling its highly encrypted, premium-priced products – not its customers’ data. Speaking at an earlier event in March 2018 Cook was very clear: “the truth is we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product... [But] we have elected not to do that,” he said.

Contrast this with rivals such as Google and Facebook: the latter’s founder Mark Zuckerberg once said “privacy is no longer a social norm” and both companies profit by selling their users’ data to advertisers.

Facebook, in particular, has been embroiled in one privacy scandal after another with 2018 being a particularly tough year for the tech titan. Most notably, in March 2018, an exposé published by The Guardian and The New York Times reported 50 million Facebook user profiles were harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting and strategic firm. The figure was later revised to “up to 87 million” profiles. Such harvesting may have had an influence on how people voted in the 2016 US presidential elections and the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK.

This led to a consumer backlash and a movement to #DeleteFacebook with some high profile celebrities doing so. Not only does the company face a consumer backlash but there are early signs of an industry backlash too.

Cook’s stance is also a timely one. Momentum has been gathering for a while: an online survey of 10,000 US consumers, conducted in April 2018, on behalf of IBM, found 78% of respondents said a company’s ability to keep their data private is “extremely important” and only 20% “completely trust” organisations they interact with to maintain the privacy of their data. The survey also found 75% will not buy a product from a company, no matter how great the products are, if they don’t trust the company to protect their data.

The data privacy and data ethics agenda is very much on the rise with firms such as Accenture, EY and Forrester publishing reports on the topic, while Gartner has identified digital ethics and privacy as a strategic priority in 2019. And authors Gry Hasselbalch and Pernille Tranberg covered the topic in their 2016 book, Data Ethics: The new competitive advantage.

Cook’s bold statement ensures data privacy – and ethics – is an issue that data-driven companies can no longer ignore. Cook said Apple regards privacy as “a fundamental human right” and applauded Europe's recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and said all privacy laws should be rooted in four essential rights:

  1. The right to have personal data minimised. Do companies need to collect user data? If so, how can they de-identify customer data?
  2. The right to knowledge. Users should always know what data is being collected and for what purposes.
  3. The right to access. Companies should make it easy for users to get a copy of, correct and delete their personal data.
  4. The right to security. Security is foundational to trust and all other privacy rights.

Expect to see the data ethics and privacy conversation become more vocal as the Internet of Things starts to permeate more aspects of peoples’ lives. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, facial recognition, biometrics and listening devices such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, will continue to raise a lot of questions around ethics and privacy – and attract the attention of lawmakers.

What kind of world do we want to live in?

For artificial intelligence “to be truly smart, it must respect human values, including privacy”, Cook believes, insisting that this is not only possible but the responsibility of business. “If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound,” he warned.

Cook’s statement is shrewd, but also timely and brave. “We must never stop asking ourselves, what kind of world do we want to live in? The answer to that question must not be an afterthought, it should be our primary concern,” he maintained.

Still, Apple can do more. As Natasha Lomas, writing in TechCrunch, points out, the company “takes money from Google [a reported $9 billion] to make the company’s search engine the default for iOS users” when it could make a privacy-enhancing search engine such as DuckDuckGo the default. DuckDuckGo has seen traffic to its site grow with every data privacy controversy, so if Apple truly values privacy it would do well to support those other companies that value it too.

With the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) on the horizon, legislation which could have a domino effect across other US states, tech companies – behemoths and the little guys alike – would be well-advised to take a leaf out of Cook’s book.

For this reason we have identified data privacy as one of the key drivers of change in 2019. We explore this trend further in the December issue of Admap which will be live on WARC.com on Monday 3rd December.