The end of trust? Balancing privacy with profits in the digital world

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Over the past 20 years, technology has penetrated our business and personal lives at a speed and on a scale that few would have predicted. Yet while technology creates enormous opportunities, it also exposes us to significant risks. We can now source goods and services from across the world with a couple of mouse clicks, but that convenience comes at a price. Many of us, myself included, worry that we’re unintentionally compromising our privacy and the security of our personal data by shopping online.

As our markets leader in Switzerland, I had the good fortune to be in Davos last month where we launched our 20th CEO survey to the global media. I can’t remember a time when trust has been more prominent than it is today. Although it wasn’t a focus area in the earlier years of our CEO research, it’s been steadily climbing up the agenda. And most, the financial crisis and the political focus on the tax affairs of multinationals have eroded both customers’ and other stakeholders’ trust in businesses. Our survey shows how heavily this erosion is weighing on CEOs. More than half (58%) were worried that a lack of trust in business would harm their business, a significant jump from 37% in 2013.

In some respects, technology has made us more trusting than before. This is best demonstrated by the sharing economy, where digital platforms connect strangers who are willing to share cars and homes. Overall, however, technology is acting as a drain on trust, especially where people believe they are dealing with ‘faceless corporations’ instead of someone like themselves. A never-ending stream of cyber attacks, system disruptions and phishing scams creates the impression – accurately, in many respects – that the internet is not a safe place. We increasingly have to differentiate ‘real news’ from ‘fake news’ and we fear that governments and companies are abusing our personal information. No wonder more than two-thirds (69%) of CEOs are firmly convinced that it’s getting harder for businesses to gain – and retain – people’s trust.

Customer data is a great asset to companies, which use it to influence purchasing behaviour. It will be an even greater asset still once the Internet of Things has expanded to include host of devices ranging from smart watches and heart monitors to refrigerators and cars. Understandably then, customer data is probably the most pressing trust issue for CEOs, with 91% saying that breaches of data privacy and ethics will have a negative impact on stakeholder trust in the next five years. Our research suggests they are right to hold this view since 84% of people we spoke to at the same time as we surveyed the CEOs confirmed that breaches do indeed undermine their trust in companies.

Of course, companies will want to use data generated by the Internet of Things to serve their customers better, but they must also avoid intruding on their customers’ privacy or allowing their customers’ data to fall into the wrong hands (and indeed new EU regulations in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation will come into force next year to help further protect individual’s personal data).

Another major challenge to businesses is cyber espionage, the modern-day equivalent of industrial espionage. This is the practice of using computers to gain access to confidential information held by another organisation. Furthermore, more than half (53%) of CEOs are afraid that trust will be undermined by global cyber warfare – where government-backed hackers target another nation’s crucial energy or security infrastructure, commercial assets or mass transport system.

CEOs recognise that trust is an opportunity as well as a risk. Significantly, 64% of those surveyed believe that how their firm manages data will be a differentiating factor in future. The businesses that flourish will balance getting and using data with the social consequences of those actions. They will actively engage with stakeholders and invest heavily in their IT security, risk and governance strategies. Ultimately, in an environment where the line of acceptability regarding data usage will be constantly moving, the ability to earn trust will be one of the greatest determinants of business success. Read more about what’s on the mind of the CEO in our 20th CEO Survey.

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Julie Fitzgerald Wieland

Julie Fitzgerald Wieland

Julie Fitzgerald Wieland
PwC
Birchstrasse 160
Postfach, 8050 Zürich
+41 58 792 2680