Invasive technology heads Tech at Tuck

In a panel discussion including representatives from Facebook and Time Warner Cable, Tuck Business School explored corporate management of consumer information as part of its ninth annual Tech at Tuck program.

Tuck’s Center for Digital Strategies, which sponsored the event, encourages the potential of technological processes to help organizations develop more competitive business strategies. Tech at Tuck promotes these strategies and reveals their potential in both business and personal spheres.

Hans Brechbuhl, executive director of the center and professor of business, said that the chosen topic — which examines the possibly invasive power of technology on the lives of consumers — has been on the Center’s agenda for several years.

“It’s a topic that we’ve dealt with in the center in a number of different ways over the course of the last couple years,” Brechbuhl, who organized the event, said. “We do research, particularly in the information security arena, and have therefore touched upon information security, information privacy and trust issues. We’ve had it in our mind as something we wanted to bring to Tuck for some time.”

Brechbuhl added that issues related to privacy, identity theft and the powers of technology are becoming more and more relevant in our increasingly digitalized world and that the timing for this particular Tech at Tuck focus is very appropriate.

John Marshall Tu’92, a professor at Tuck who also moderated Wednesday’s panel, said that it is natural that concerns over technology’s invasiveness are growing because corporations largely feel that they have to go digital to remain competitive. Marshall added that in the fast-paced business world of today, companies must use technology to generate information about their consumers if they want to be a competitive market force.

He noted that technology has two faces: it can offer organizations a tremendous advantage but also allows for intrusions into customers’ private lives.

“If you know a customer’s needs and you know what to anticipate, then you take out a lot of waste,” Marshall said. “The other big benefit is taking all the clutter out of advertising in order to make it more efficient and more targeted to people’s needs. The costs are that in order to do some of these things, you do need data and it’s not always clear to the customers what data is being gathered and how it’s being used. The challenge is that consumers are not really that aware of the data being tracked about them.”

Marshall said that advertising companies can target their audience with greater efficiency if they know exactly what kind of customer they are attempting to reach. He added that with the increased generation of personal information in this digital age, the issue of security is raised. All the information generated has to be stored somewhere, and it is important that the stored data is protected from theft.

Yesterday’s panel touched on many of these issues directly in the discourse among Anke Audenaert, vice president of content optimization from Yahoo!, Craig Goldberg, chief privacy officer for Time Warner Cable, Chris Kelly, vice president of corporate development for Facebook and Amy Weinberg, vice president of customer insight at Starwood Hotels Worldwide.

When asked what the advantages to knowing personal information about consumers were, Audenaert cited the Yahoo! homepage’s use of voluntarily-given information. She said that Yahoo! creates a personal assistant for each customer based on the zip code given when they register with the company online. Based on the zip code, Yahoo! then provides traffic pattern information and maps for the area designated by the customer’s zip code.

“If you use your mobile phone you’ll find that if you go to ‘Yahoo! Movies’ it will give you showtimes for movies in the area that we know you are most often in,” Audenaert said. “It makes it a little easier to manage your life.”

While such developments may indeed increase the quality of life for Yahoo! customers, Audenaert admitted that advertisers put pressure on corporations to fuse demographic information and “behavioral” information determined from an individual’s online search record in order to tailor an Internet advertisement to someone’s specific searches.

Goldberg, while acknowledging the potential of such advertisements, confessed the “creep factor” of intense specificity. He noted that consumers are not clamoring for their every move to be recorded despite the potential benefits of selective advertising.

“We don’t ask customers all that often, ‘would you like us to start monitoring what TV shows you were watching last night?'” Goldberg said. “Certainly our advertisers would love it if we could tell them … so they could target you with special promotions.”

In the end, each panelist noted the endless potential of technology to create unique and tailored experiences for consumers while also admitting that the line between private and public gets murkier by the day.

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