Maintaining a Balance between Data Transparency and Monetization

privacyTransparency in data is an important topic right now. To be both transparent and ethical should always be a priority in adtech. In an era of the always-on connected consumer, it is vital to maintain privacy. Being honest about what data is being used and how it is being used creates trust between all who play a part in the process, from consumers to publishers. And trust is the most valuable asset a company can possess.

Recent headline-grabbing articles about personal data leaks and hacking of high profile services have pushed the broader data privacy issue to the forefront. As for transparency in particular, there is increased awareness that the multiplication of services and intermediaries has made it much harder for users and those representing them to control the flow and access of their data. As an ad platform, we are being approached every single week by vendors selling user data. These vendors range from large, established data aggregators and resellers, to tiny publishers I’ve never heard of, trying to monetize a niche audience on their site. With such a multiplication of players and incentives, it is critical to define industry-wide schemes to ensure transparency. This starts with building up awareness as to the importance of data transparency among all stakeholders.

Is this really Privately Identifiable Information?

As the topic of data security seems to saturate ad tech conversations lately, it is crucial to shed light on the practical considerations that companies need to pay attention to, yet aren’t quite doing.  Everybody I talk to agrees that private data should stay private, and that the notion of “private” is relative to the socio-cultural context of the user. Data vendors always tell me they do not sell Privately Identifiable Information (“PII”). They sell “aggregate” data, or encrypt sensitive information like email addresses; for the most part these vendors mean well, but at the same time, most vendors barely know or understand the origin of the data they are selling. Hence, how can they really guarantee that their data were collected ethically and transparently? It is somewhat akin to these complex mortgage securities before the financial crisis, who had become so detached from the actual mortgagers that the financial broker who sold these instruments had no way to assess how solvent these borrowers were.

Openness and Transparency!

So I ask you this question: What is the ideal balance for monetization? The current consensus seems to be that if you do not disclose any PII, anything is fair game.  At PulsePoint, we uphold strict No-PII standards to never accept any name, addresses, social security number or credit card info, for example. Nor would we expose email addresses or device serial number without encryption. This is clearly stated in the T&C signed by all publishers, vendors and advertising partners associated with the PulsePoint platform. It is of utmost importance that we uphold a firm practice of only processing data that cannot be linked back to a specific person. For example, we may disclose that a user is on an iPhone in Manhattan, which leaves a few millions possibilities. If we also reveal this user is a young male professional in the financial industry currently shopping for a new car, that’s still OK, but if we continue adding data points we may narrow down the pool of possible candidates to just one individual. That’s why we need strong internal policies and full disclosure on how data is consumed and shared, to ensure we never cross that line.

Strong internal policy is key for any company to operate in a transparent and ethical manner. Speaking from a personal example, PulsePoint’s advertising platform processes billions of user sessions every day, so it is imperative that we have robust and well-defined processes for deciding which data we ingest and distribute. This starts with full disclosure to our publishers and data providers as to the kind of information we are comfortable ingesting. We go to great lengths to ensure that appropriate data, as well as the majority of our advertising performance metrics and targeting attributes are fully available via our real-time dashboards.

It’s important to note that not all platforms are as open with their data, often launching themselves into murky waters with less than ethical practices of data harvesting and usage. The best way to create an environment where all participating parties feel safe and protected is to collaborate constructively with customers and partners to maintain full transparency on how data is generated and used.

At PulsePoint we are very much committed to making ads matter. We believe maintaining user privacy and reaching very specific audiences are not mutually exclusive. And ultimately, knowing well your audiences is the best way to deliver messages that are meaningful and timely to users.