Do we need to know everything about our data? (Hint: No.)

May 15, 2023

The New York Times published this eye-catcher last month, and frankly we are so over articles like this.

How many reports are we going to read about how little consumers understand the byzantine workings of digital technology? How much longer will we busy ourselves with surveys and studies that tell us something we already know?

The questions in this study, a few of which you can see in the screenshots below, are designed to show how little the American consumer understands. “Breaking News! Not everyone is a specialist in data privacy practices” … Would that have been a better headline? It’s about as informative.

Think about how many people get sold a car every year in this country. They don’t all know how an automatic transmission works, do they? Nor do we expect every Tesla driver to understand the science of machine learning behind self-driving technology.

Consumers take massive leaps of faith every day, whether they’re shopping for cars, insurance, or iPhones. Our expectation is that the products and services we buy will work, work well, and work safely. If you needed even a base level of techy knowledge to make the marvels of the modern world function, the global economy would collapse overnight.

Why, then, do we find it so important to point out how little consumers “know” about obscure points of technological systems, policy, and law?

Perhaps because, in some ways, it helps reinforce the status quo. If the conversation is always about “knowledge,” then the information asymmetry between consumers and businesses becomes a two-sided failing of individuals (“Hey dummy, why haven’t you read up on this?”) and government (“Hey daddy, why aren’t there better laws about this?”).

It doesn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to recognize that the information asymmetry is above all a boon to data extractors. Most people in this camp grew up in the last three decades of unregulated access to and manipulation of user data. It is an industrial normal to them to ignore information and education in favor of building tech and marketing it at scale.

But what this survey in the New York Times makes irrefutably clear is that all of us – business, consumer, and government – have arrived at a point of no return. Consumers want more control over their data. Period. And, just as importantly, their sense of that control is inextricably linked with how much they trust the brands who use their data.

No one (sensible) would argue that consumers need better knowledge to be in control of their data. Awareness is not the same as knowledge. And any behavioral economist will tell you that consumers do not make rational decisions. We need to stop bemoaning the lack of data and privacy “knowledge” and start thinking about what consumers are really asking for.

Like any individual in a trusted relationship, consumers want a seat at the table. They are already operating from a foundation of skepticism. Only the brands who succeed in helping consumers overcome that will find themselves in the most defensible market positions. And the best way to do that is to design for (meaningful) control and (meaningful) consent.

As technology becomes more complex – especially with the advance of AI – this sense of trust and reassurance will only become more essential. It will (and already does) make a difference to brand loyalty, purchase decisions, and public reputation.

Lawmakers are responsible for reading the fine print and protecting consumers from nefarious actors – whether they’re unscrupulous businesses or … literal criminals. Let them do their jobs and legislate on behalf of the general public, who can never be as well informed by definition.

In the meantime, stop chastising consumers for not understanding something they don’t need to understand. Think instead about solutions that bring users to the table by showing them the flows of data and teaching them how to swim. Control and transparency are about trust, and trust is a brand and purchase differentiator.

If we start from that practical premise, we’ll all find it much easier to help consumers protect themselves, while deepening their relationships with the brands who truly deserve it.