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The privacy profession isn’t about ruining everyone’s use of the Internet or killing innovation, as some say.

We aren’t here to make people’s jobs harder, nor do we want to kill revenue. Like you, we’re always looking for ways to develop and apply ideas to make our companies more successful. We run businesses too!

We know, however, that the most important thing is not just getting the job done but also doing it the right way.

Privacy officials balance both business and consumer needs and interests. We know what marketers and data warehouses want, but we also must consider what consumers are thinking and doing. For that, we turn to research like Adestra’s 2017 Consumer Digital Usage and Behavior Study.

I was honored to work with Adestra again on formulating questions that would shed light on consumers’ attitudes toward their privacy and data use. The responses proved to be most enlightening and raised important issues over consumer expectations and responsible data use.

Consumers are wary about giving out personal data

One of the important findings to come out of this year’s study is that people are more concerned about protecting their digital identities than marketers realize. This year’s study shows the pendulum continues to swing toward consumers protecting their own digital identities.

We learned that consumers have, on average, 3.2 personal email addresses and 1.8 business addresses. Further, 4 in 10 say they use at least one of their addresses for email they’ll seldom or never open. The primary address, then – the one they use for email they don’t want to miss – is becoming a personal identifier across digital channels.

This trend toward owning primary and secondary email addresses evolved from a growing tendency to retain email addresses longer instead of changing them every few months or years. Consumers are finding it easier to retain email accounts – and thus the addresses associated with them – because of two long-term changes in email technology:

  • Intelligent anti-spam systems more accurately filter out spam and other emails of dubious origin.
  • Personalized email addresses have replaced randomly generated letters and numbers assigned by their email or Internet services.

This has sparked the realization among marketers, privacy officials and government agencies that an email address is much more than a group of letters surrounding an “@” symbol. It has become personally identifiable information – PII to privacy officials – because so much data is tied to it across digital channels.

Email addresses as personal identifiers raise privacy, regulatory concerns

As Adestra’s Ryan Phelan puts it, “you can now tell more about people by their email addresses than by their Social Security numbers.” Right there, however, is where the problem occurs.

Using the email address to identify each customer individually is a boon for marketers. But it also invokes a major privacy concern. Marketers must now treat the email address as sensitive data, like a home telephone number or street address, bank and investment accounts or social insurance numbers.

Many email and privacy regulators now believe companies need an explicit opt-in just to process data associated with an email address. For marketers, this has two implications:

  • You must collect email addresses in ways that respect a consumer’s rights and expectations.
  • You must give that data the security it deserves, such as encryption at rest (when you are storing it in your corporate databases) and in transit (when you are sharing it with outside parties).

Adestra’s study also found that 72.3% of respondents said they are not comfortable giving up personal information in exchange for a free downloadable app. We know that people will share selected personal information if they believe they’re receiving something of equal value in exchange.

Marketers must be hyper-transparent about data use

This reminder is more important than ever because data collection and data-mining to inform and guide marketing strategy have become commonplace activities for both individual marketers and well-known data giants like Google.

As such, Return Path asserts that “business as usual” means responsible data use, whether you’re a marketer, data scientist or anyone else who uses these personal identifiers routinely for business.

This includes being upfront about how you use and protect the personally identifiable data consumers entrust to you. As an example, you can state your privacy and data-use policies in a set of bullet points using language consumers can understand and in a place where they’ll see it easily.

Email and privacy laws affect data use

Besides being transparent and responsible about your data practices, consider the practices required by your country’s regulations aimed at protecting consumers.

Collecting data beyond the email address, such as birth date, city, postal code or last name can increase your append match rate but also make you subject to your country’s email and privacy laws.

These include CASL (Canada’s Anti-Spam Law), which requires explicit opt-in and applies both to Canadian companies and to foreign companies emailing into Canada, and CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) for U.S. companies, which permit opt-out messaging.

Data-driven businesses rely on trust

Responsible data-driven marketing is a force for good. Consumers and policymakers need to learn that they get great value from data but must also give consumers control over the data they share and be explicit about what they offer in exchange for that data.

It also means that respecting privacy, safeguarding data and enabling trust should be core principles for everyone, as it is at Return Path.

For our staff, privacy is of the utmost importance. Our business depends on the trust placed in us by thousands of companies and millions of people. Violating that trust is simply not an option. We want people to be fully informed about the information we collect, how we use, share and protect it, and the choices our customers have with it.

The key to maintaining the benefits of online behavioral advertising to consumers is to balance consumer privacy with the advantages that data collection and use provides.

Our industry has worked hard to achieve this balance by committing significant resources to provide more transparency and choice to consumers about the collection and use of their data for online behavioral advertising. I welcome your questions and comments here about data use, transparency and the impact email and privacy laws have on your business.