Privacy is one of the most contentious issues in the digital age — and it’s been in the news a lot the past few weeks. There was the recent Path address book scandal and then Google tracking Safari users on iOS and then the New York Times exposition on Target’s data collection, and how they were able to predict a girl was pregnant before even her parents knew, based on her shopping habits.

privacy data

Every time a new “privacy scandal” like this emerges, people inevitably freak out. There are usually calls for some sort of reform or regulation, and the entity responsible for the “infringement” gets a PR black eye, and usually ends up apologizing and discontinuing the practice.

Onlookers wonder how a company could have ever thought it was acceptable to collect data in such a clandestine way. How could anyone think it’s okay to be so invasive!?

As marketers and developers, we’re expected to see a line in the sand between “acceptable” ways of collecting data, and those that are too shady. The problem is – no such line exists. Or rather, it’s only discovered when companies get publicly shamed for crossing it.

Finding the Line

Of course, there has always been active data collection, where you need to ask the user to hand over his or her information. This is pretty standard for things like names, email addresses or addresses.

However, things start to get a bit more ambiguous when you consider passive data collection – where information about a user is transmitted without their explicit consent.

For example, consider websites that serve hyper-local ads based on the client’s IP address. The site never explicitly asked the user where they are, and the user certainly never gave up that information deliberately. But this happens all over the internet and users have generally deemed it as an acceptable practice.

A lot of the tech press came out to support Path, since the practice of uploading a user’s entire phone book – as invasive as it might sound to some – is actually a fairly common industry practice among iOS apps. And why should Path have to take the heat for a collecting data the same way everyone else is?

The Quest to Delight Users

The funny thing about all of this is that – as marketers and developers – we generally see data sharing as a good thing.

The more we know about a user, the more we can tailor their experience and make it enjoyable. Having more data helps us spot software bugs more easily and figure out where users seem to be getting bored or disinterested – allowing us to find our weak spots and improve them.

tracking clicksAll you hear about in startups lore these days is how you need to be analytical and data-driven. Track everything and don’t make decisions without data to back them up.

It’s easy to see how this exuberance leads to practices that might seem alarmingly invasive to some.

In his apology post following the privacy outcry, Path’s CEO Dave Morin explained how they only used the address book data to help you find other friends that were also using the app, to help you link up and get more out of the experience.

The more we know about our users, the better we can make our products. Unless they decide we’ve crossed the line – and then everything comes tumbling down. But where is that line?

Don’t Make Your Users Queasy

There’s a great quote from the Target employee interviewed for the New York Times piece:

“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable. We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”

Don’t make your users queasy. It’s one of the most ambiguous challenges we as marketers & developers face, especially considering how easy it is to collect data these days.

It’s an easy goal to forget about when it gets in the way of delighting our users. But as privacy scandals become the modern-day political sex scandals, it’s important to not get caught with your pants down.

Hartley is a 20-something, full-stack web developer. Author of Marketing for Hackers and The Ultimate Guide to Web Scraping.