From banking to entertainment, shopping to eating, technology has never played such a significant role in our lives. But collectively, we have never trusted it less.

By Lorna Hardie, regional director of VMware SSA

There are many factors at play here. Firstly, consumer trust across societal structures and organisations has diminished. In politics and media, for example, many leaders no longer command the levels of respect they once did. Another factor is a sense of discomfort with new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning that, until now, have often been presented to us through dystopian fiction.

But a large part of the trust issue for technology is because the fuel that drives so much of it is data. And while businesses are happy to promote highly personalised services to their customers, those customers are increasingly concerned about how that personalisation is achieved, how their online behaviour and personal data is being monetised and whether this data is safe.

In a recent survey commissioned by VMware, two thirds (66%) of consumers admitted to not knowing who has access to their personal data or how it’s used.

Inevitably these concerns increase when news of data breaches hit the headlines, and personal information is suddenly exposed to millions. In the same way that cybersecurity has become top of mind for many consumers, so too will data privacy.


The consumer conundrum

Whether people will change their behaviour is another matter. The same research reveals that 58% of consumers are worried third parties can see where they travel, where they shop and what they buy, and nearly half (48%) are paranoid that organisations are recording what they do on their devices. Yet despite these concerns, 43% admit to having personal profiles on social media which could compromise their privacy.

This gap between intent – ‘I want to stream movies via a service that knows my tastes in film and protects that data’ – and behaviour – ‘I don’t want the hassle of ticking boxes or reading a consent form about how the service uses my data’ – presents a privacy challenge that organisations need to engage with.

Being conscientious stewards of personal information is arguably a responsibility (and an opportunity) that all organisations share. Surely it’s only right that we work towards a state where customers of all organisations are confident their data is secure and being used responsibly?


Trust requires security, privacy and transparency

So what action can companies take to create the trusted relationship they need with customers?

Firstly, data security is key. Organisations must mitigate cyberthreats and inadvertent misuse of data through comprehensive data security policies covering people, processes and digital services.

Resting on this foundation of strong cybersecurity controls is data privacy – the second pillar of customer trust. In the past, privacy centred on the idea of transparency. Companies would consider their obligations met if users were notified about how their data was going to be used when they signed up for a service. Indeed, this was the basic premise underlying GDPR in Europe.

But today that level of transparency is not enough. Many consumers understandably feel the “take it or leave it” privacy notices on apps and websites don’t provide any meaningful choices or control – after all, if they don’t agree, they might not be able to use the service. This lack of control is reflected in the same survey – well over a third of people (40%) admit to blindly accepting all cookies on websites without further investigation to save time. Again, the intent versus behaviour dilemma.

Control and choice, as well as transparency, are now at the heart of the privacy issue. Organisations – particularly those in the tech industry – need to prioritise them, put them at the centre of design decisions along with data security and understand that taking a privacy-centric approach can exist in harmony with innovation.

At VMware, we’re tackling this through an approach we call Privacy by Design. We embed it into all organisational processes and technologies that touch personal data, enabling our product teams to deliver a compliant but still superior customer experience. It follows four fundamental principles: building privacy in at the earliest stages of a product’s development; minimising the data we collect and use; safeguarding personal data with the highest cybersecurity standards; and letting our users choose what personal data they provide, wherever possible.

Re-evaluating how to connect with customers in a privacy-centric way is something that businesses of all stripes owe their customers. If not, they risk losing them all together. But tech companies have obligations that are bigger than that. Focusing on security, privacy-by-design and transparency is not only the right thing to do for customers and for society, it will also raise the bar for our entire industry.

After all, in the ever-expanding digital world, the responsibility for rebuilding trust in tech inevitably falls most heavily on our shoulders. And, of course, it is this collective responsibility in building trust among consumers that will bring our digital economies to the next frontier.