Give your customers some privacy says ThoughtWorks

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Hey big corporates, those vast server farms you’re running which are capturing everything there is to know about your customers? Maybe, just maybe you don’t need them. That’s the message coming from technology company ThoughtWorks today, which has offices in Johannesburg and Kampala.

The firm has just published the latest version of its ‘technology radar’, which is always a fun read, and it’s acknowledging the post-Snowden public mood towards vast and indiscriminate online data capture with its latest trends.

Back in December, ThoughtWorks’ chief scientist Martin Fowler adopted the German phrase ‘datensparsamkeit’ to describe a corporate attitude towards data capture which would encourage adoptees to only collect information about their customers that is needed for the service provided. In a personal blog post he railed against:

…the notion that we should capture and store every bit of data we can get our hands on. We might not have an immediate use for the contacts our users store in their address books, but we’ll ask for it anyway in case it comes in useful later. We’ll record every click on our website and squirrel it away in case we want to trawl it later. We set up our smartphone app to ask for location information so if we come up with some way to use that data later, we can. After all, storage is cheap – so why not?

In the post, Fowler encourages businesses to try and anonymise data where possible. Tracking website visitors, for example, is essential for a business that relies on page views to generate revenue (like us). Instead of storing IP addresses of unique visitors, he asks, why not hash and encrypt those addresses then throw away the key? You still know how many people have looked at one of your pages, but you don’t necessarily know who they are.

Datensparsamkeit isn’t just about bad people stealing data, it’s also about your relationship with the primary company themselves. The default attitude at the moment is that any data you generate is not just freely usable by the capturer but furthermore becomes their valuable commercial property. Privacy advocates, including me, think this assumption needs to be changed.

Fowler’s theories have found their way into the company ethos. Datensparsamkeit is the headline theme of this quarter’s Technology Radar, and the firm is helping to co-ordinate an international day of action to highlight issues surrounding online privacy next month. We’re told that the Joburg office has plans for an event of some kind – watch this space.

(Image: Dutch National Archives)

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