LUST: The first deadly sin of customer relationships

The explosion of online cookies and trackers has become a story of data lust. We need to build new digital trust using 'decentralised identifiers', to re-connect with customers and create new value.

This post is part of a series about why today’s digital customer relationships are broken, and what we can do about it. You can find the other ‘seven sins’ here

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LUST: the first deadly sin

Every day, billions of tiny data files - so called ‘cookies’ and device identifiers - are monitoring our connected devices all over the world.

These tiny digital trackers expose deep insights about what people are doing online, what apps they use, how they use them, where they have been recently, what online content they look at and when. They reveal how long app visitors scroll for, what they tap on, when and where they fill out forms (and if they complete them), not to mention detailed information about the customer’s device, the battery status… even their real-time typing behaviour (called ‘keystroke dynamics’). 

It’s a LOT of data. 

Gathering as much customer data as possible has not only become a business norm, it’s become core to many business models in our digital economy today. 

The use of cookies over the last decade alone has simply exploded. Like tiny wiretaps inside our browsers and mobile apps, cookies lie at the heart of today’s data tracking and customer surveillance economy, with many companies regularly choosing to track individuals who aren’t even customers.

Cookies have had an immeasurable impact on the digital economy since 1995, and have prompted important questions about citizen surveillance and business ethics. Their widespread tracking of individuals online has ushered in a wave of many data protection regulations including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

I think it’s fair to say that the explosion and use of cookies, trackers and device identifiers have become a story of data lust.

Lust sometimes gets described as an ‘intense wanting’ or ‘longing’. Given some of the intense tracker activity seen across websites today, it feels a justifiable label.

There are three root causes for this increasing lust for consumer data. 

First, it’s become incredibly easy to track customers at low cost, to follow their digital footprints around the internet. If it’s said that “what can be connected, will be connected…”.... Then in today’s digital economy, “what data can be collected, will be collected”

Second, this business norm has roots in something deeper: the often-touted company vision become 'customer obsessed'. It’s one thing to be passionate about helping customers solve real problems; but quite another to be ‘obsessed’. It conjures up images of excess and addiction. (Just think about it: a teacher wouldn’t say they were obsessed with their students; nor a married person obsessed with their spouse. Obsessive individuals often need help and treatment, and are sometimes given restraining orders).

And third, many businesses are simply ignoring the downstream impacts that customer tracking has on the rest of business: the additional overheads like the compliance and IT processes needed to manage, secure and clean the data collected; plus considering the effects of losing customer trust when the company’s vast troves of personal data are hacked or breached. 

Why does it matter?

This isn’t about changing business processes because some tinfoil-hat-wearing customers are ranting about digital privacy. It’s about recognising that this widespread tracking behaviour is actually changing how customers now behave. 

Customers repeatedly tell business they don’t want to be tracked, yet that’s exactly what then happens. So guess what: customers now hand over a bunch of fake personal data when signing up for new services. What’s that? You need a full name? Sure: Mickey Mouse. Email: I wonder how many dates of birth are recorded in CRM systems as 1/1/1990.

Then consider this: it’s estimated that up to half of shoppers are deciding not to use a product due to privacy concerns. Unwanted customer tracking is also now one of the reasons behind the explosion in the use of consumer privacy tools, and why companies like Apple are making privacy a centrepiece of their products and brand marketing

But there’s more afoot here. Technology providers are now helping consumers block tracking by default, and Apple is even going after the tracking industry by killing-off user device IDs completely

When you add it all up together you can see that ‘going digital’ isn’t just about capturing more data and building richer customer insights. It’s about understanding a new digital dynamic, appreciating the new consumer attitudes to privacy, and understanding a larger loss of confidence in our digital economy that many companies are simply ignoring.

Acting on lust without having a trusted relationship is quite simply stalking, or worse, abuse.

We need some self-help treatment for those businesses obsessing about customer data.

Who goes there?

If you look at this data lust, a huge part is about digital identifiers: how we know who each person is, and how to track them from place to place.

But how about this: what if each customer could manage their own digital identifiers, and handle their own digital footprints?

What if an individual could automatically create a new, unique identifier - think of it like a contact number - for each and every digital relationship they have?

They could create a new one for every business they deal with, every service provider, every charity, every restaurant, every school, government department and so on?

And what if each organisation did the same thing in return, creating a new, unique contact number for each and every customer they dealt with?

Well first, it would mean that when the customer contacted that business or company, they could be instantly recognised - the only person who would ever use that special number would be that single customer.

And the opposite would be true: when the organisation needed to contact the customer, they too could use their special number, and so would be instantly recognised by the customer.

Second, there would be no more phone call phishing, as we’d just ignore the call because we’d know who was on the line.

Just think… seamless call centre experiences. “Hi, it’s me again”… “hi there, I’ll put you right through”. No more ‘mother’s maiden name' questions. No more asking for date of birth.

Third, fraud would plummet. It would be nearly impossible for thieves and tricksters to find out your special contact number - which remember, would be different for every single business - and so they couldn’t impersonate you.

It goes on. This approach would transform levels of trust everywhere. 

But phone numbers like this would be cumbersome, and a pain to manage. Not to mention tied only to making phone calls.

The breakthrough: DIDs

This is where Decentralised Identifiers (or ‘DIDs’ for short) come in.

DID make all this now possible. They are little identifiers that you control, likely on your mobile phone.

Excitingly, DID aren’t just ‘contact numbers’, but a clever way of knowing you’re dealing with the same person or business as before, so it’s way more than a contact number: it’s an identifier that can work across any context or setting - whether you’re on a mobile app or on a website; if you’re dealing with a contact centre or even face-to-face in a store or branch.

DIDs have huge potential, and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) - the body that looks after the standards for the web like HTML - are getting pretty serious about it. And the last time they looked at identifiers it was nearly 30 years ago… to define the URL. 

Towards sustainable relationships

DIDs have the potential to impact every person, business and connected ‘thing’ on the planet.

I’d go as far as to say that DIDs will be as disruptive to the economy as the internet and mobile phones have been to twentieth century business models and structures. 

You see, businesses won’t need cookies to track customers. Instead, they’ll use DIDs to build a trusted, peer-to-peer connection with each customer so they can seamlessly exchange any type of data - even tracking information - when it’s requested and used in a trusted way.

DIDs are about building lasting private and secure digital relationships with customers. And as we’ll see with each of the Deadly Sins, they are about reducing costs, increasing compliance and enabling truly personalised products and services… all without being creepy.

Companies whose very business models depend on correlation and tracking (data brokers anyone?) will have an increasingly difficult time. But those that want to build genuine, direct and private digital relationships with customers will thrive. 

Digital privacy is undoubtedly going to shape the next decade of economic and global growth.

So here’s the prediction: it’ll soon become more valuable to build sustainable customer relationships over secure and trusted digital connections using DIDs, than to lust over customer data with tracking cookies and digital surveillance infrastructure like today’s ad-tech woowoo. 

I’ll go further:

In 10 year’s time, 80% of the data that’s collected today will become relatively useless compared to the data that’s exchanged with customers using Decentralised Identifiers.

With DIDs businesses will enable a whole new category of direct, secure, private and permissioned digital relationships, and unlocking new customer experiences, new business models and new levels of customer trust.

So here’s to the next 30 years of customer tracking, but this time using the customer’s very own set of DIDs that they create and control.

And here’s to an end to one-sided digital surveillance with cookies and trackers; to introducing some checks and balances on today’s so-called obsession with customer data

I’ll say it again: acting on lust without having a trusted relationship is quite simply stalking, or worse, abuse.

DIDs might just become the self-help treatment we said is needed by those currently obsessing about customer data.

And it’s about time too... else customers will be filing for that restraining order.

Next up? SLOTH.

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