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Identity in the Big Data Age

Jed Mole Last Updated June 2nd, 2020
Identity in the Big Data Age

Cast your minds back fifteen years to the start of The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon is floating in a vast and stormy sea, adrift without any recollection of his past. He is plucked out of the waves by crew on a fishing boat, who nurse him back to health and discover vague, coded clues to who he really is. And that kicks off his journey.

In many ways, this is how customers used to be, for many brands online and off. Someone would show up in a store, and unless they were regulars, a brand would have little to no idea of their background, whether they had shopped there before, or their specific needs or wants. Online, identities were even more opaque – often just tagged by the most general of cookies or reliant on sign-ins.

Clearly, this is no longer the case. We are no longer adrift in a sea of Big Data with no identifying features. If brands are smart and switched on, they know who we are, even across device. Of course, that would have made for a much shorter, less interesting movie franchise.

You may hate the term, I certainly don’t revere it, but what the term Big Data encapsulates is the growing volume, variety, velocity and challenging validity of data today. In that sense, without the hyperbole, the term works just fine for me with data generated from practically everywhere, from social media to purchase transactions to so many more. The data offers enormous potential to drive customer-centricity, innovation, productivity, efficiency and growth through actionable insights for all industry sectors.

However, when it comes to the people-based aspects of Big Data, the huge benefits of identity recognition and customer management strategies in making marketing personal, must be reconciled with increased risks to individuals’ privacy. For example, the relatively recent emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) has and will continue to cause an explosion in the volume of data generated and while connecting fridges and washing machines to our lives is claimed to bring disruptive benefits to us as consumers, it is also likely to have a disruptive effect on our personal data.

Under privacy laws or data protection laws, if you’re not dealing with any personal data, you’re outside of the legislation. However, these days, there are so few organisations that don’t interact with the customer and the line is no longer as clear as we might have thought it was. Privacy and anonymity gets complicated in the age of Big Data.

The impending General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and ePrivacy directive are both going to be incredibly influential in the way that people think about identity. When GDPR comes into force next May, it will reinforce the need for clear identity resolution for Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in some use cases and for pseudonymisation in other use cases, to address privacy and anonymity requirements.  The GDPR will demand the protection of personal information in each case and companies must be clear about how best to use what approach, when and under what circumstances, it is privacy-safe to link the two in order to create a true single customer view and joined up customer experience.

While it has been said that Big Data is the gold rush of our digital age, it does not mean, and it should not be, at the expense of personal privacy. As ‘our internet’ grows and develops, customer identity is everything. You simply can’t deliver the best, seamless and most relevant experiences to your customers without the right data foundation – and that right data foundation has to be rooted in a respect for the information held, the law and the individual’s needs.

It’s great to tie all data points back to a user’s identity, in order to drive greater value to the consumer. But, as we move forward into a GDPR and ePrivacy directive-regulated future, it is imperative that all marketers, database users, and CRM professionals remember, most consumers don’t care about Big Data,  their north star centres on the data being legally obtained, kept safe and used in their very best interests. It is somewhat ironic that the best way we can do that is to focus on the one thing that matters to them most, their identity.

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