Safeguarding Data in the New Age of TV

We are awash in data. We can and must do a better job of managing it.

Dan Berg, 605

Dan Berg, 605

The emergence of the cable industry spurred the passage of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. Though decades old, the Cable Act has been effective in its mission to spur competition in the industry and serve as a bastion for the privacy of subscriber data, while still allowing for the sort of analysis and data crunching that can yield relevant targeting and optimized media plans.

But now that set-top boxes are no longer the only medium for digital consumption of TV and video programming, the policies and standards set in place 30-some years ago cannot effectively govern the new ways consumers interact with data and information.

The initial decade of the “big data analytics” era has yielded increased insight into who’s watching what, how to reach those individuals in more relevant ways and in the ability to better measure and optimize how advertising dollars are spent.

It’s a win-win when consumers are presented with advertising for products, services and brands that are actually interesting to them, and even better when the advertising is contextually relevant to the programs they’re watching. Yet within the world of media analytics, a shoddy approach to data stewardship, ownership, sharing, disclosure, security and opt-in could rightfully cast a shadow on the entire enterprise and risk turning consumers against the very mechanisms that make advertising more relevant to them.

An Issue With Global Scale

Consider the recent unauthorized and undisclosed use of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, which resulted in state, federal and international investigations, and finally in the latter firm’s insolvency and shutdown. This comes as every company that does business in the European Union, in every vertical market, is scrambling to figure out what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) really means to them, even after racing to meet the initial May compliance deadline. Meanwhile, so-called “smart TVs” with automated content recognition have become a lightning rod due to obfuscated data collection disclosures and buried opt-out screens.

Expect more states to follow in the footsteps of California, which recently passed new consumer-privacy legislation that requires companies to disclose the types of data they collect and empowers consumers to opt out of having their data sold.

The media-analytics industry operates on an international scale, and the consumers from whom we collect data and to whom we target ads have varying expectations as to what “acceptable use” means, based on the data-privacy regimes and cultural norms that exist where they live. The rules and regulations that govern what we can and cannot do with their data are as varied and complex as the ways in which the data is delivered and consumed.

Internet-connected TV, the sophistication of the devices on which programs are consumed and the sheer volume of data that analytics companies need to secure have all raised thorny new data-privacy issues. It will be critical for the industry to get its data stewardship ducks in a row, but much can be learned from how we acknowledged, debated and dealt with consumer data during the advent of the cable TV era.

The following can serve as useful guideposts as we (quickly) figure it out:

• Learn our lesson from the Cable Act. While additional legislation is hopefully not the answer, it is critical that we understand how the spirit and intent of that legislation can create standards of acceptable use that extend into the new digital world order.

• Put consumers’ needs first in terms of protecting their (i.e., your and my) privacy, while also leveraging available data to improve the overall experience. If we broadly lose consumer trust, no amount of cleverly relevant advertising will swing the pendulum back.

• Hype aside, consider whether blockchain technologies can help establish the provenance and trace the winding path that data sets may take across aggregation points, providers, analytics firms, agencies, marketers and others in the ecosystem.

• Think ahead to an environment in which wireless broadband is ubiquitous and screamingly fast, and becomes the de facto “pipe” through which TV and video is consumed, both inside and outside the household. From a data-security perspective, vast streams of information will be more easily discoverable by people seeking to use data for nefarious purposes, making encryption and related safeguards even more critical than they are now.

We need to own and drive the conversation around how data is acquired and used in pursuit of ever-more-effective consumer targeting and ad relevance. It’s not hard to envision a set of shared and verifiable standards and best practices for how we collect, safeguard, analyze and respect data — the very raw material that is now the primary enabler and lifeblood of our businesses. If we don’t do it ourselves, it may be foisted on us in reactive and draconian ways that will stifle our ability to effectively innovate and deliver the insights and value that we all know are possible.

We can and must do better. We need to start today.

Dan Berg is chief technology officer of 605, a New York-based television data and analytics company.