Forget the uproar over the NSA. The mistake the agency made wasn't the survellience itself--it was the spin. With a better approach, the "spying" the National Security Agency has been doing into cell phone calls could have been spun as a good thing for our country and its citizens.
We live in an era where the boundaries around privacy and data sharing are being continually eroded. That's not going away; the hard part for companies and institutions is how they handle it. It’s in the covertness of the NSA's action that every business should learn a cautionary lesson.
Consumers are OK with Tracking
It might surprise some, but my studies with consumers show over and over again that a large part of the population, especially those who are more technologically savvy, are okay with companies tracking data about them. In fact, they expect it. They know that every mouse click they make, every update they share and every site they visit ends up somewhere. In fact, most consumers think companies are far more advanced in analyzing this data than they really are.
The Problem is in the Disclosure
What consumers are not okay with is when they don’t fully understand how the information being tracked and shared is going to be used.
Take an example. Instagram properly disclosed to their customers that they planned on selling photos that were uploaded to their service. This was met with immediate and substantial backlash from the user community, who were concerned about where their personal photos would end up. Many people threatened to take down their photos, and Instagram recanted.
Provide Customers with Awareness and Choice
By making customers aware that calls were going to be tracked, the NSA and Verizon could have accomplished two things:
1 - Those that didn’t want to be tracked or monitored in this way could make a choice. I interviewed a woman just last week that did not carry a cell phone because she was convinced it tracked her everywhere. But she made a choice. Many in the Instagram community threatened to stop using their accounts and remove their pictures after Instagram’s intent was made public.
2- It could have been a positive instead of a negative. In a post-9/11 world, we all value our safety, and don’t want a repeat of the Boston bombings. I know that when I take my shoes off at the airport or have to remove my liquids from my luggage, that there are reasons.
Disclosure that this course of action would be taken, that in fact the phone call content was not even being recorded, would have gone a long way in easing the public’s minds and preventing the current controversy.
So let that be a lesson: If you are planning to collect data on your customers, make sure you are clear on how you will use that data--and share that information. Consumers are willing to share information when they feel informed and that they have made an active choice to participate. That's a hurdle we all should be able to meet--small companies, big companies, and yes, the government.