This week I will expand one of the issue I mentioned last week: Privacy. Right now I’m not really here to push any particular point of view, (as I have before and will again), but rather to examine the issue in a “tech trend” sense. While the Snowden leaks might have many people angry with government or the NSA, and the discussion in the news media is focused on the specific political story, the broader story is independent of the politics: the public is much less innocent about privacy issues than they were a year ago. As tech predictions go, I wouldn’t be confident in pegging 2014 as “the year of privacy” (whatever that might even mean), but I also wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of the year, there aren’t a few more high profile examples of companies taking advantage of privacy concerns in their marketing.
For some services, privacy was already their selling point. Playing David to Google’s Goliath, the privacy-respecting search engine, Duck, Duck, Go, has already seen its usage increase after the PRISM scandal. Pre-Snowden, something like Duck, Duck, Go was squarely in the open-source tech-hipster market. Now, your average consumer has a good chance of reading about this service and thinking they should give it a shot. So right there we have a concrete example of a potential “privacy boom.”
But while Duck, Duck, Go’s increased popularity is worth noting, they’re still a drop in the bucket compared to Google. What will be more interesting is to see if and how larger companies change their practices or messaging. Microsoft has already tried to cash in on the privacy scare with some anti-Google snark, though many are quick to question if the move isn’t hypocritical. Tech marketing might have a Mad Men “It’s toasted” moment. The first company to advertise the privacy controls they already had in place will look like an innovator. Everybody who moves into that marketing space after them will look like a follower. Well, we are talking tech, so a good number of people won’t be fooled, but if there is one cynical lesson from the tablet boom it’s that the tech savvy aren’t the audience being fought over any more.
What would be more telling, however, is if new services or new policies that emphasize data security get rolled out. This is on the horizon, but for 2014?
Not certain. Even with increased public interest in privacy, these services are a hard sell. Data security is sort of like your immune system. You never notice your immune system working, you only notice the failures. The most respectable policy and the most secure data collection are always intangible to the user. Even with new services, it might be more of a marketing battle than a technological one, (for instance, consider how Mac OS X got a reputation for being safer than Windows even though this has been untrue at many points in time). Regardless of services, your personal privacy is more or less secure, barring any silly gaffes of your own making on Facebook, and your feelings of security will be staked on the reputation of the services you use more than technological reality.
Ancillary to this, however, is that this new public interest in data privacy might spur the adoption of new services. A simple example would be password managers such as LastPass that allow you to have your cake and eat it too; generate random, strong, tin-foil-hat-approved passwords for every service you use while requiring yourself to remember only one simple password. In other words, all the apps that were formerly only in the purview of the technorati might find themselves enjoying more mass appeal.
The final point I would like to make here is one more specific to the audience here: this “privacy boom” will affect your office as well. Maybe not today, maybe not this year, but soon, patients are going to start asking you serious questions about the security of all that personal information you have been storing on them. This problem is multi-layered, because not only does it mean that you need to start educating yourself more on how the technologies in your office work, but the provider of your practice management software needs to be prepared to have this conversation with you too. If your software provider is not apt to match supply to the new privacy demands, you might be the one who ends up looking bad.