In recent remarks to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook declared that “people have a fundamental right to privacy.” He has begun an assault on the business model of Big Data as currently shaped by Internet giants Google and Facebook.It was Eric Schmidt, while CEO of Google, who famously pronounced the death of online privacy in 2009, telling people “if you have something to hide, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
Under Schmidt’s watch, Google launched Gmail in 2005, perfecting the business model of providing a free service in exchange for access to user data. With Mark Zuckerberg at its helm, Facebook has pushed the boundaries of using data collected from its users, such as personalizing advertising copy by including images of your friends, and pushing automatic posts to your social network when you play a song on Spotify.Cook may already have found an ally in University of Pennsylvania’s Anneberg School for Communication. A survey managed by the School and released in June found that about 90 percent of consumers do not consider it fair to trade personal data for benefits such as targeted ads and discounts.
The researchers produced evidence that the majority of consumers felt resigned to the status quo in which they did not feel in control of their own data.The UPenn story was picked up by mainstream media, such as the New York Times and Fortune. Natasha Lomas of TechCrunch, a leading online news website that tracks the tech industry, reeled off an invective titled “The Online Privacy Lie is Unraveling,” calling the collection of data a “heist of unprecedented scale.”
Only 14 percent of people understand that their web-surfing history is being shared.
Wait a minute. Didn’t Harvard Business Review only a month ago take the opposite stance? In a long article, marketing executives are told the customers demand fair value for data collection, and advised to creatively design non-monetary trade-offs because “in-kind” benefits work better than dollars. The authors are consultants at frog, a global product design and branding agency founded in 1969, with a sterling client list, including SAP, GE, HP and Microsoft. Most notably, frog designed some of the early Apple computers. How did these consultants support their arguments? They have conducted a proprietary survey.
So within the course of two months, two top-class media outlets published key findings on digital privacy that contradicted one another. Each report cited a professional survey, sourced to an organization of stature, UPenn and frog. This state of affairs is all too familiar nowadays. It frustrates me and it should you too.
Surveys are not all created equal. In this instance, I find the frog study less credible for a number of reasons.
The frog analysis was based on 900 people across five countries. That is a depressingly small sample, marginally sufficient if analyzed in aggregate. Drawing country-level conclusions with an average of fewer than 200 responses is far below standard statistical practice. By contrast, the UPenn study had 1,506 respondents, all within the U.S., which means it is almost eight times the size of the frog sample.
UPenn conducted telephone interviews, half of which to mobile users. Response by telephone is typically considered more reliable than online answers. frog did not disclose whether its study was done online, via telephone, or otherwise. Nor did frog mention any qualifying questions.
The researchers at UPenn required respondents to be somewhat active online, effectively removing people who are probably in the dark about oneline data collection practices.