Over the weekend, I ordered in some food for a party I hosted at home. To the app, I provided my name, mobile phone number and my residential address. The food was delicious and the party, even better! I also bought my daughter a pair of shoes at a brand retailer; black and silver if you insist on knowing and at the time of billing, when asked, without a care, I happily provided the clerk with my name, mobile phone number (again) and email id just so that he could let me know about the next sale preview; open only to "loyal" customers.
When I subsequently hopped across to a chemist to buy some medicines, once again, when prompted, without a second thought, I gave them my name, mobile phone number and the name of my doctor; even before the invoice was raised. My details with him, the chemist said that the next time I needn't drive to the store to pick up the medicines, that he would happily have them delivered to my door step, that too, within an hour!
The next day, with the weather being perfect for a swim, I decided to search for my swim trunks for their first session in our newly redone pool. When I realised that I couldn't find them, I happily ordered a set from a marketplace and courtesy my "prime" membership, they were delivered within the next couple of hours. If that isn't delightful, I don't know what is.
And, as a result, the ever-so-inviting swimming pool is where I spent most part of my evening. And the last important thing I did this weekend was to finalise my holiday itinerary for our summer vacation with my friends, abroad. Over a couple of video calls and some emails that went back and forth; the detailed, day-wise schedule was prepared, g-mailed for common confirmation and the flight tickets booked!
When I look back at the weekend, it was a perfect one. One well spent with friends, family, great food, amidst lots of laughter, at the swimming pool and one where I also finally found the time to plan our next overseas holiday - something that I had been procrastinating about for a while. It is this kind of a happy weekend that I would wish for everyone - especially if you are living in the sweltering heat that has come to descend on most of north India!
But then came the other realisation; before hitting the bed, I saw the playback of the US congressional hearings that were being played out on some international news channel, almost in a loop. And a stark, almost dark realisation it was! Amongst everything that I had done with different sets of people, I had given out my name, mobile phone number, residential address (and therefore, the profile of where I live), my food preferences, the fact that I have a daughter, her shoe size, my interest in swimming (never mind the added info on the size of the trunks I bought), my credit card details, holiday plan (which had the number of days), my interest in certain kinds of destinations (and by default, my financial capability to afford them) while I was gmail-ing this to friends. And the worst part is that I divulged all of this without a care in the world and will, perhaps, do so with equal nonchalance in the future as well.
Now that made me think of many things. For starters, that I wasn't alone - certainly not the only dumb one! Almost all people in my acquaintance ordered in food over the weekend, had groceries home delivered, partied, swam, and placed orders online across marketplaces and apps. Holiday plans or not, my acquaintances always emailed and made video calls to friends, family and then some. In the process, it was not just me but a lot of people I could think of who would have shared many details, personal or otherwise, to many merchants, without thinking about (forget clicking on the now notoriously famous "I agree" tab) whether these individual pieces of information could be either shared or worst still, sold to other commercial entities that could now target us with a variety of "offers".
The more I thought about this the more (and to my horror) I realised that with my mobile phone number being the common unique data label, all pieces of my data could easily be stitched together to create a rather accurate sociographic and psychographic profile of mine (and for millions of others) which in turn could be sold to the highest bidder, where they need it to market their products or communications to me or alike.
After all, wasn't this the perfect example of Big-Data-led, rich customer profiling that many brands (including ones I work/ed for) sought when they reached out to various data analytics organisations with the demand for seeking rich customer insights including, but not limited to, buying behaviour on new and potential audience groups? I don't think that most marketers, barring some, more than a little fleetingly asked for the "source" of the data that was being provided to them and cross-checked how ethically it was sourced.
Contrast that to the self-righteous indignation that now, the same people (including people like me) are unleashing on a famous and hugely recognisable name (who by the way has a rather inspiring back-story which, for the longest time, was cited as proof of individual genius and intellect) that is today being interrogated for all the misdemeanours and wrongdoings that his organisation has committed.
No, not for a moment am I condoning the indiscretions committed by his organisation. On the contrary, I believe that transparency and faith are two key pillars that need to be continuously strengthened for any brand as it grows in its stature and impact. And these two key values should be the ones that the brand is held accountable for. The only limited point I am making is that are we, both as custodians of the brands we manage and the ones we consume, being too overtly critical of another brand without taking adequate responsibility for our own behaviour?
While we must question the ethics of this large data-led organisation, shouldn't we, at some level, also equally question our own nonchalance with which we share large parts of information about ourselves with organisations who may not have even half of the data security measures that this one at least has?
Or, the other fundamental question which is how we plan to deal with the other large data-led organisations who also operate within our technology ecosystems and who perhaps know as much about us (if not more) without getting our explicit permission. What about organisations that run operating systems on the devises we are stuck to 24/7? Or the ones that run email services and who scrape through every sentence that is written and exchanged via their servers?
And are we being oblivious to the threats from other smaller, disaggregated organisations who collect data on us via their software deployed through multiple retail and other POS systems and which can be misused even more easily given that they are also under the radar to be governed by any regulatory standards and/ or bodies?
I had a lovely weekend and look forward to stepping into the next week with refreshed energy and vigour. That said, there is something for all of us to think about - how much and how easily we share data or how happy we are to outsource all moral responsibility to those with whom we share it.
Sorry Mark, I missed uploading any of my weekend moments on FB this weekend. But I will make up for it on the following one!
(The author is head of brand and marketing at Fabindia)
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