Consumer Privacy and Security Center Stage at SXSW


With the FBI and Apple locked in a protracted court battle, President Obama visited Austin for a an appearance at SXSW, to make a case that user privacy and society’s broader security can live in balance. While Obama’s talk provided the most visible moment of the conference, the tradeoffs between privacy and security were front and center at dozens of panels topics, and in nearly all of the party conversations.

The panelists weighing in on these questions ranged from former government attorneys; to heads of technology industry associations, like CES; to publishers who are suffering dramatic revenue impacts from ad blocking; to research organizations like the Center for Democracy and Technology; to early internet voices like Cory Doctorow and Douglas Rushkoff.

For me, the theme crystallized around the key concept of consumer trust. If consumers trust your brand, they are willing to share information about themselves. For the first 15 years of the web, consumers were pretty trusting. But, as the new business models and government surveillance capabilities become larger – both physically and in our imaginations – consumers are rethinking these tradeoffs in dramatic ways.

For digital businesses, the worst possible outcome is that consumers start from a default position of distrust. But, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s call to arms at SXSW 2014, technologists are now speaking louder on behalf of their customers. Browsers are dictating new defaults on ad blocking; Apple is further tightening encryption of their customers’ data. The voice of the consumer is being reflected by the technology platforms, and the platforms are much more formidable than individual consumers.

The clear solution is to prove, with every customer interaction, that you are worthy of trust and accountable to your customers. This direct relationship with your customer offers an end run around the battle of large technology players and large government actors. In the end, helping your customers with their goals, ultimately helps you with your goals.