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New technology is increasingly muddling distinctions between research and marketing. All you have to do is to visit your favorite social media website to see how marketers are using your data to sell products and services to you.

In this time of blurring lines, privacy is one key area of consideration. As a researcher, I think it's great that consumers are better able to inform business insights and that technology provides innovative ways for businesses to learn about their customers. Vision Critical has built a business around insight communities as a result of this need to gather consumer insights faster.

But as a consumer privacy advocate, I also recognize that new methods of insight gathering will raise privacy issues. As I mentioned in a recent BCAMA breakfast series event, businesses should tread carefully, and as a starting point, the following are important considerations when they use consumer data for marketing and other business purposes:

  1. Accountability

Smartphones have made it easier for consumers to share their thoughts. The mobile technology boom has facilitated new ways of gathering information, giving a broader array of choices to consumers to provide explicit feedback to brands and letting companies gather information without the need to always reveal this tracking to consumers.

With this great power comes great responsibility, however, and businesses need to be more accountable on what they do with the data they collect. There are inherent ethical issues that come from collecting people's information.

This issue is where marketing can take a page from market research. As we revealed in our Evolution of Insight interactive infographic, the research industry has been self-regulating for a while now. Industry organizations such as ESOMAR and the Marketing Research Association have been established as far back as 1948. These organizations provide guidelines on everything from engaging teens and children in market research to establishing guidelines for mobile studies.

The marketing industry still has a long way to go in terms of self-regulating consumer data research practices. As privacy becomes more top of mind for consumers - and as government legislation start to catch up with consumer concerns - it will be more critical than ever for the industry to establish best practices and rules around this area.

  1. Transparency

Today's consumers get constant encouragement to be more transparent. Many social networks are based on the notion that consumers will willingly share what they're doing, where they are, or what they're thinking or seeing. The idea is that if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn't be afraid to share a piece of your life online.

But most consumers probably don't completely comprehend the repercussions of having their information captured somewhere. Because data is stored digitally, it won't take a lot for marketers to connect the dots and figure out almost everything about a consumer.

Recent headlines suggest that businesses have a ways to go towards transparency. For example, some fashion brands have been experimenting with bionic mannequins equipped with facial-recognition software that records people's age, gender, and race. However, these brands do not always warn or adequately alert customers that they are being monitored. This example demonstrates how the potential legal and ethical issues of collecting data makes it more critical than ever to be more transparent.

  1. Education

Of course, the conversation about privacy shouldn't just involve businesses. To get privacy right, businesses are just one-third of a trinity that includes consumers (who need to build their skills and awareness around what they're sharing) and governments (who need to balance the interests of everyone involved).

Given that non-profit organizations such as the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) are already working to protect and educate consumers about privacy, there's an opportunity for businesses to collaborate with these institutions. For instance, NCSA's STOP. THINK. CONNECT campaign, which aims to educate "digital citizens stay safer and more secure online," involves companies such as AT&T and Intel. This partnership demonstrates how companies can work with - not against - non-profits and consumer advocacy institutions in protecting people's privacy.

This is a time of change, and government agencies are closely watching what is happening. Recent signs suggest that sweeping changes to big data regulation are imminent. That's why it makes business sense to get ahead and be part of the conversation that will impact our industry and consider practices that will minimize harm to consumers.

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