Access and Regulations to Collide in the 2020s, as the Battle to Redefine Privacy Plays Out

After years of freely, or unknowingly, giving up their data, consumers are becoming wary

Illustration of a coiled snake with people sitting on it while using devices
The next decade could see ground rules set for an industry that’s used to making the rules (or not) as it goes. Getty Images
Headshot of Lisa Granatstein

This article is part of a series celebrating our being 40 Years Bold, highlighting four decades—and counting—of Adweek, whose editors look back at notable news, trends and people, and at what could be in store for the next 40 years.

“I swear my phone is listening to me,” said everyone with a smartphone.

And they’re not just talking about Siri. Targeted ads and friends’ posts regularly pop up on Instagram and Facebook in the midst of our conversations about those very products and people.

Coincidence? No one has been able to conclusively prove otherwise, but we do know Alexa is recording us on our Echo Dots.

Technology is pushing the limits in how marketers not only meet, but anticipate, the growing demands for a frictionless customer experience. With the convergence of Big Tech, machine learning, enhanced targeting and personalization, we arguably stand at the precipice where either personalization or privacy will hold sway.

The pushback has already begun, with the 2020s poised to be the decade that sets some ground rules for an industry that’s used to making the rules (or not) as it goes.

“If you think about healthcare, if you think about financial services, every other industry with high volumes of data collection—they are already regulated, but it hasn’t come to roost for those of us in the marketing and advertising space,” noted Fatemeh Khatibloo, a Forrester analyst with expertise in the privacy/personalization paradox. “And clearly what we’re hearing from consumers and regulators is that it’s time to put those guardrails up.”

Indeed, the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation in 2016, giving citizens more control over their data, shutting down some businesses overnight, and now this privacy trend has reached our shores. Maine and Nevada quietly enacted their own protections earlier this year, and the California Consumer Privacy Act, which allows residents not only to opt out of having their data collected, shared or used, but to sue businesses for data breaches, takes effect on Jan. 1. Similar bills are in the works for Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island and Texas. In time, depending on which way the political wind blows, we may see a comprehensive law protecting data and privacy enacted by Congress.

The imminent arrival of 5G, with its blazingly fast broadband speeds and improved mobile networks, will only add to the urgency of the privacy-and-security conversation. It’s obvious why 5G would appeal to consumers, but will they be as thrilled with the potential for marketers (and the government) to have even more access to their every move?

For brands, the coming decade promises extraordinary technological advances that will unleash new and exciting ways to enhance their value. But as we know all too well, technology can get away from us and into hands of bad actors. With innovation being a moving target, and the consumers’ thirst for the next, it will be incumbent on marketers and regulators to be able to strike a balance between access and protection.

We’re looking forward to bringing you that evolving story in the decade ahead.

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 9, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@lgranatstein lisa.granatstein@adweek.com Lisa Granatstein is the editor, svp, programming at Adweek.
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