Privacy: what's it worth to you and your business?

Ben Ackland
Co-Founder & Managing Director

Up until now I’ve mostly discussed privacy in private, with family, friends, colleagues - ironic really. I don’t broadcast by default. I’m passionate about my own motivations, but perhaps have never felt that comfortable with sharing them en masse.

But I think that might now be changing. Not because I’m doing what the social media companies tell me I should - engage in their platforms, give them my time, feelings, thoughts, (and be a revenue-generating advertising target for their own customers in the process)...

...But because maintaining some privacy in our ever data-consuming world - something that at times infuriates me - seems to be slowly rising on other people’s agendas too - both personal and business. And that’s a conversation I want to be involved in.

To be clear: when I talk about privacy I mean true privacy of one's data, activities, conversations; not just a so-called ‘privacy wash’ (when a company pretends to adhere to ethical data practices).

Take Website Analytics, for example

Google Analytics pretty much owns the website analytics market (~84% share). The level of data that Google collect allows them to build up a rich profile of what individuals are interested in, across many of the sites they visit. This in turn is converted revenue for Google e.g. through targeted advertising to those visitors.

As a website visitor (or owner), do you want Google doing this with your data? If you're a current Google Analytics user, do you actually find their software usable, with it's endless number of ways to introspect this data?

Fathom Analytics is a privacy-conscious alternative, and it’s gaining momentum fast. They collect zero personally identifiable information from website visitors; focus on actionable data in their clear and concise reports; it’s generally not ad-blocked like Google Analytics (because no ulterior advertising motive means no real reason to do so) and - bonus - no cookie notice is required for site visitors, giving them a better experience too. An attractive offering that's been working well for us.

Another example: Email

Ever considered what (not who) is reading your email before you do?

When you send an email from your device (or through a browser) it’s transmitted through servers to its destination. Computers ‘read’ your messages in transit. Go back 10 years or so and they were used to pick up on keywords, typically to try and determine whether an email was spam. But truly ‘understanding’ an email - e.g. on almost any subject and in a variety of languages - was impossible — computers couldn’t reliably determine what the sender was talking about, or was interested in, or were motivated by etc.

Technology has of course evolved. We’ve found ways to train computers much more efficiently and accurately and now they are learning more and more about how we communicate. They understand a huge amount of what we say and do - and why we do it. E.g. what the ‘tone’ of your message is; which businesses or products it relates to; how often you communicate with each recipient etc.

Some of this is for good - e.g. usability, efficiency, automatic categorisation - things you see and value. But there’s a dark side too - for instance: Google has been tracking the purchase history of Gmail users for many years. “Google said it is doing this to help its users keep track of everything they've purchased in one place -- but people are seeing this as an invasion of privacy.”. As of 2020, Gmail has over 1.8 billion users worldwide - that’s a quarter of all humans. Just imagine what might be possible by analysing all of that data using the vast resources they have available... And who would really benefit from it? The users?

Private email offers an alternative to this - ironically a bit like sending a letter in a sealed envelope that will (the vast majority of the time) only be read by the recipient, then kept within reach or discarded. It gives us a choice. And it’s compatible with the existing world of email.

“Nine in ten Americans view privacy as a human right. Ninety-three percent of people said they would switch to a company that prioritizes privacy. Fastmail is growing and that's largely because discerning customers are learning more about why online privacy matters.” Fastmail's COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen told me.

A further example: Search

DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn't track you. Ever.

It’s a viable alternative to Google and Bing for web, image, video search. And usage is growing rapidly:

Privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo is growing fast

Donations to their effort have also been steadily increasing: $500k in 2018 ➔ $600k in 2019 ➔ $750k in 2020.

Conversely: “Google parent Alphabet suffered a decline in search for the first time in its 22-year history in the second quarter” [of 2020]. Another indicator that change is happening.

Privacy doesn’t come for free - at least not at the moment. But neither do many of the FREE services we rely upon - they are often funded by long-term monetisation of our data and profiling of us. For me, paying a bit for significantly more privacy is totally worth it, 100%. I budget for privacy within our business too.

A Growing Trend

This isn’t just me and people I know. There’s a growing trend here - just skim the blogs of the aforementioned innovators. And here’s why I think (truly) privacy-conscious software will become so important:

  • 1. Everything is interconnected in this world and that’s only going to increase
  • 2. Your data is in spread around more places than ever before
  • 3. We communicate through an ever-growing list of hardware and software
  • 4. We’re all contributing to a global privacy debt, and it’s mounting
  • 5. Technology is getting smarter than the vast majority of the world can keep up with (or even comprehend)

For me it’s not just about the small or immediate implications. Sometimes those are actually hard to see because we’ve become used to it - were in the thick of it right now. The big implications, e.g. of having a handful of powerful companies know so much about us and our businesses, selling this to fund their own objectives, and storing everything they can for as long as possible... In truth it does concern me. But I also feel like I’m starting to get a handle on it. And I’m taking action.

Key Takeaway

So much software out there is making money out of our data, often without us really knowing it. It’s only a matter of time before we feel the consequences and start to realise the true value of the data we collect, store, and share.