Multinational marketers are closing in on the May 25 date by which they must comply with the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). As the date looms, marketers are tying up loose ends to ensure they meet the deadline. However, most view the GDPR — a regulation that governs the way in which consumer data is collected as well as how it's used and stored — as a major challenge and remain uncertain how much their data policies will change. Scrambling to meet the deadline, companies are in various states of preparedness.
The GDPR will offer consumers in the EU more control over their personal data and outlines requirements for data collection, storage, and use. It will also impose potentially steep fines on companies with poor data-handling practices and those that experience data breaches in which they are found at fault. While the regulations are limited to the personal data of consumers living in the EU, they apply to any company handling, transmitting, or storing that data, whether it has a physical location in the EU or not. This includes marketing technology (martech) companies that process data for and receive personal data from their customers.
What Is Personal Data?
Many martech companies don't collect personally identifiable information, which means the data does not directly identify an individual. Generally, the consumer is assigned a cookie with some random, unique value to tie certain website events together. With the GDPR, the notion of personal data is extended to include online identifiers such as IP addresses and cookie values.
These identifiers do not identify an individual, but if you combine these with additional information, you can identify a person. So it becomes critical that we understand the nature of the additional information to process it in a secure and compliant manner. Securing data may include what the GDPR refers to this as pseudonymization, where the data is processed so that it cannot be attributed to a specific person. Hashing and encryption are examples of pseudonymization.
What About Personal Data You Didn't Ask For?
Martech companies need to think through and map out how all their data is collected and what is sent to them from their partners and customers. I recommend answering the following questions:
- What data are you collecting, and what data are your customers sending you?
- As a data processor, do you really need the data customers are sending you? If you do not really need it, do not accept the data. Period.
Furthermore, I recommend that customers perform pseudonymization on any personal data before the data processor collects it. The less personal data martech companies handle, the better.
The Right to Forget
Within the martech sphere, companies will either obtain consent or have a legitimate interest for processing personal data and need to comply with requirements such as data portability, also referred to as the "right to forget." The right to forget revolves around the concept that consumers have a right to demand the deletion of their personal data from companies that have that data, even if they previously have given permission for its collection.
Brands collect and store consumers' first-party data as a matter of course — that is, any data consumers offer when they buy something or conduct transactions online. If you're shopping on Amazon, banking with Wells Fargo, buying tickets with Ticketmaster, or booking rides on Uber, you have offered your data. Besides the brands, the requirements apply to their third-party vendors, including their data processors. Martech companies may also have access to all or part of this data, or process some or all of it for the brands, including pseudonymized personal data.
The right to forget can be technically challenging to solve for, especially in martech, where millions of records are processed daily.
If you apply pseudonymization to personal data, it becomes very important to store this data in one place (database normalization). Any reference to the personal data will come via a foreign key or token. When martech companies receive a request to delete personal data, it is a matter of updating the record with some value that does not mean anything (e.g., "unknown").
The idea here is that companies do not physically delete everything associated with the customer but, rather, change the pseudonymized value and leave everything else in place because retailers have legitimate business interests in the data. The net effect is that the retailer will have its metrics available — for example, the number of sales for a given marketing channel. If the pseudonymized data is spread to multiple data stores and systems, it becomes very hard to control and satisfy the right-to-forget principle.
The GDPR Effect
With the GDPR in place, the martech sector must look at privacy issues as part of the requirements for building its systems — these issues cannot be afterthoughts. As software is built, the privacy piece must be part of it from the start — a "privacy by design" approach. The sector also needs to start treating IP addresses, device identifiers, and other identifiers as personal data. Just because these don't identify a person by themselves, the combination with additional information could.
It is also important that martech companies train their teams and make it clear to customers that they do not want any of their customers' personal data that they do not need to provide services to the customer. On the training front, teams need to make this a requirement at the beginning of the process when they integrate and onboard customers. If, however, the customer does need to send personal data, the data must be pseudonymized.
Overall, the GDPR forces companies in the martech sector to rethink their systems and how they handle data. We want to be transparent and build systems that protect consumers' data according to what they consented to. In an era when security breaches are pervasive, the GDPR is something we need.
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