is a privacy counsel and legal engineer at
. He holds a JD from Harvard University, and is a PhD candidate for Social Policy and Sociology at The Harvard Kennedy School.
Five billion dollars. That’s the apparent size of Facebook’s latest fine for violating data privacy.
While many believe the sum is simply a slap on the wrist for a behemoth like Facebook, it’s still the largest amount the Federal Trade Commission has ever levied on a technology company.
While incumbents like Facebook are struggling with their data, startups in highly-regulated, “Third Wave” industries can take advantage by using a data strategy one would least expect: ethics. Beyond complying with regulations, startups that embrace ethics look out for their customers’ best interests, cultivate long-term trust — and avoid billion dollar fines.
To weave ethics into the very fabric of their business strategies and tech systems, startups should adopt “agile” data governance systems. Often combining law and technology, these systems will become a key weapon of data-centric Third Wave startups to beat incumbents in their field.
Established, highly-regulated incumbents often use slow and unsystematic data compliance workflows, operated manually by armies of lawyers and technology personnel. Agile data governance systems, in contrast, simplify both these workflows and the use of cutting-edge privacy tools, allowing resource-poor startups both to protect their customers better and to improve their services.
By using agile data governance, startups can balance protection and improvement. Ultimately, they gain a strategic advantage by obtaining more data, cultivating more loyalty, and being more resilient to inevitable data mishaps.
Agile data governance helps startups obtain more data — and create more value
With agile data governance, startups can address their critical weakness: data scarcity. Customers share more data with startups that make data collection a feature, not a burdensome part of the user experience. Agile data governance systems simplify compliance with this data practice.
One key principle to its ethical data strategy: minimizing data collection and use. Ally’s customers obtain services through a personalized website, rarely filling out long surveys. When data is requested, it’s done in small doses on the site — and always results in immediate value, such as viewing transactions.
A critical tool to minimize data use is to use advanced data privacy tools like differential privacy. A favorite of organizations like Apple, differential privacy limits your data analysts’ access to summaries of data, such as averages. And by injecting noise into those summaries, differential privacy creates provable guarantees of privacy and prevents scenarios where malicious parties can reverse-engineer sensitive data. But because differential privacy uses summaries, instead of completely masking the data, companies can still draw meaning from it and improve their services.
With tools like differential privacy, organizations move beyond governance patterns where data analysts either gain unrestricted access to sensitive data (think: Uber’s controversial “god view”) or face multiple barriers to data access. Instead, startups can use differential privacy to share and pool data safely, helping them overcome data scarcity. The most agile data governance systems allow startups to use differential privacy without code and the large engineering teams that only incumbents can afford.
Ultimately, better data means better predictions — and happier customers.
Agile data governance cultivates customer loyalty
According to Deloitte, 80% of consumers are more loyal to companies they believe protect their data. Yet far fewer leaders at established, incumbent companies — the respondents of the same survey — believed this to be true. Customers care more about their data than the leaders at incumbent companies think.
This knowledge gap is an opportunity for startups.
Furthermore, big enterprise companies — themselves customers of many startups — say data compliance risks prevent them from working with startups. And rightly so. Over 80% of data incidents are actually caused by errors from insiders, like third party vendors who mishandle sensitive data by sharing it with inappropriate parties. Yet over 68% of companies do not have good systems to prevent these types of errors. In fact, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica firestorm — and resulting $5 billion fine — was sparked by third party inappropriately sharing personal data with a political consulting firm without user consent.
As a result, many companies — both startups and incumbents — are holding a ticking time bomb of customer attrition.
Agile data governance defuses these risks by simplifying the ethical data practices of understanding, controlling, and monitoring data at all times. With such practices, startups can prevent and correct the mishandling of sensitive data quickly.
Cognoa is a good example of a Third Wave healthcare startup adopting these three practices at a rapid pace. First, it understands where all of its sensitive health data lies by connecting all of its databases. Second, Cognoa can control all connected data sources at once from one point by using a single access-and-control layer, as opposed to relying on data silos. When this happens, employees and third parties can only access and share the sensitive data sources they’re supposed to. Finally, data queries are always monitored, allowing Cognoa to produce audit reports frequently and catch problems before they escalate out of control.
With tools that simplify these three practices, even low-resourced startups can make sure sensitive data is tightly controlled at all times to prevent data incidents. Because key workflows are simplified, these same startups can maintain the speed of their data analytics by sharing data safely with the right parties. With better and safer data sharing across functions, startups can develop the insight necessary to cultivate a loyal fan base for the long-term.
Agile data governance can help startups survive inevitable data incidents
In 2018, Panera mistakenly shared 37 million customer records on its website and took 8 months to respond. Panera’s data incident is a taste of what’s to come: Gartner predicts that 50% of business ethics violations will stem from data incidents like these. In the era of “Big Data,” billion dollar incumbents without agile data governance will likely continue to violate data ethics.
Given the inevitability of such incidents, startups that adopt agile data governance will likely be the most resilient companies of the future.
Case in point: Harvard Business Review reports that the stock prices of companies without strong data governance practices drop 150% more than companies that do adopt strong practices. Despite this difference, only 10% of Fortune 500 companies actually employ the data transparency principle identified in the report. Practices include clearly disclosing data practices and giving users control over their privacy settings.
Sure, data incidents are becoming more common. But that doesn’t mean startups don’t suffer from them. In fact, up to 60% of startups fold after a cyber attack.
Self-service tools like WebMD’s are part of agile data governance. These tools allow startups to simplify manual processes, like responding to customer requests to control their data. Instead, startups can focus on safely delivering value to their customers.
Get ahead of the curve
For so long, the public seemed to care less about their data.
That’s changing. Senior executives at major companies have been publicly interrogated for not taking data governance seriously. Some, like Facebook and Apple, are even claiming to lead with privacy. Ultimately, data privacy risks significantly rise in Third Wave industries where errors can alter access to key basic needs, such as healthcare, housing, and transportation.
While many incumbents have well-resourced legal and compliance departments, agile data governance goes beyond the “risk mitigation” missions of those functions. Agile governance means that time-consuming and error-prone workflows are streamlined so that companies serve their customers more quickly and safely.
Case in point: even after being advised by an army of lawyers, Zuckerberg’s 30,000-word Senate testimony about Cambridge Analytica included “ethics” only once, and it excluded “data governance” completely.
And even if companies do have legal departments, most don’t make their commitment to governance clear. Less than 15% of consumers say they know which companies protect their data the best. Startups can take advantage of this knowledge gap by adopting agile data governance and educate their customers about how to protect themselves in the risky world of the Third Wave.
Some incumbents may always be safe. But those in highly-regulated Third Wave industries, such as automotive, healthcare, and telecom should be worried; customers trust these incumbents the least. Startups that adopt agile data governance, however, will be trusted the most, and the time to act is now.