Is it time to abandon privacy?

Ben Moss.
January 28, 2013
Is it time to abandon privacy?.

ThumbWhilst the trend for online business continues to grow, there is a significant increase in the number of consumers choosing not to do business online. The most oft-quoted reason is privacy.

Six months ago, several thousand euros were charged to one of my cards. A criminal had somehow accessed my Amazon account and purchased hundreds of gift certificates for himself via, the German language version of the retailer.

It's clear that the weak link was my account rather than my card as all fraudulent charges appeared in my account history. Exactly how the access was gained is a mystery: I'm not exactly a newbie to the internet. Since it happened I've been very wary providing details to anyone, and haven't shopped with Amazon at all. If I can be discouraged to easily, how much more off-putting must it be for the less tech-savvy? Can they be blamed for mis-trusting online purchasing?

Financial details are not the only data being exploited. Last week Google released their Transparency Report detailing the user information they have handed out at the request of courts and government agencies. Requests have increased by 70% in the last 3 years, with more than 21,000 requests in the last six months alone.

Data about you isn't restricted to what you hand over knowingly. Numerous devices including cameras include geolocation technology. When a suspected hacker posted photos online of his girlfriend taunting the police last year, the GPS information in the photos' metadata lead federal authorities straight to her door.

Of course, the argument goes, that if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear. So what leads customers to fill out online forms with phone numbers like '01234567890'? Why lie, what does the user have to hide? The answer is nothing, they simply don't trust you not to lose, or sell their information.

As developers, building websites for our clients, how can we combat this climate of mistrust?

The first step, as advocated by Nathan Barry last month is to limit the amount data we ask for: do you really need a street address in order to contact someone, wouldn't an email do?

A second, and potentially more long-term solution is to balance the exchange of information by showing the same level of trust in the user that you ask them to lend you.

It's extremely unlikely that a customer's survival depends on the goods or services you're offering, your business' survival on the other hand is very much dependent on sales. The balance of need is in the customer's favor, it makes sense therefore that the business, which has the most to gain, is the one to take the risk.

It's time that businesses stopped offering callback forms and made themselves reachable. If a phone call may be necessary to verify a transaction then provide your phone number, don't ask for the customer's. If you're genuinely worried about the cost to the consumer then provide a toll-free number.

If businesses continue to value their privacy over that of their customers they may soon find themselves so private that they have no customers at all.

As for Amazon, they refused to provide a phone number to resolve the fraud on my account. Fortunately, my bank has a branch down the road, I walked in there and they took care of it for me.

How happy are you for companies to collect your private data? Should businesses be more open with their own information? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, security image via Shutterstock.

Ben Moss

Ben Moss has designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. When he’s not in front of a screen he’s probably out trail-running.

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