Dear Home Depot (and Target and eBay and…): Can You Please Protect Our Data?

Using (and protecting) Data for Good

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On the drive to work yesterday, I heard a now-familiar story on the news: Home Depot, it seems, it has been the subject of a “massive” security hack, with 

potentially every one of their stores affected. If true (and since the Chicago Tribune reports that the folks in the orange aprons have brought in the U.S. Secret Service to help, it likely is) it’s reported this breach can dwarf the 70 million pieces of consumer data Target “lost” last year.

This worries me for many reasons, not least of which is that I – along with the many millions of other homeowners and handy-people who visit their 2,200 stores each day – entrust the company with my data, and it appears that, once again, someone has lost part of it.

No matter what the cause, one thing is clear: this is yet another big screw up, marking yet another breach of consumer trust.While a discomfiting surprise for customers, worryingly, it seems that this probably wasn’t a surprise to Home Depot. SecurityScorecard Inc., which rates businesses on their security, has given Home Depot a “C” rating. Perhaps this is due in part to the 1.3 days it takes Home Depot to clean up malware in its system, compared with the retail industry’s average of one day. Or the fact that, according to the Los Angeles Times, hackers have been chattering online about vulnerabilities on the Atlanta retailer’s website since 2008.

Big Data means big opportunity: For companies, customers and – sadly – for thieves and hackers.

Every time you interact with a website, you create a record of your actions. Each time you power up your cell phone or tablet, you’re creating a trail of digital breadcrumbs that contain insights into the very fabric of who you are as an individual – what your interests are, where you go and when, what you buy and more. And this doesn’t even begin to cover the personal information that many of us post voluntarily on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.

All this information is the source of Big Data. And it’s sitting – along with our credit card data, social security numbers and other important information – in cloud-based servers and data warehouses that are woefully under protected. The fact is, security breaches – ranging from the 38 million Adobe users hacked almost exactly a year ago to the 145 million or so people affected by this March’s breach at eBay – are commonplace.

The concept of Big Data means that companies of all sizes can now cost effectively and relatively quickly analyze the exabyte’s of data surrounding their customers. Appropriately gathered, remembered and analyzed, all this data can make companies much, much smarter about their customers – driving new insights and competitive advantage for those that elect to do so.

Customer data is more than digital detritus – In fact, it’s one of the most valuable assets any company has.

What all this means is that customer data is a key asset for companies, as well as for their customers. And that the time is now to start treating it as such. After all, when’s the last time you heard about a “massive security breach” that resulted in actual money being stolen? For most companies, data is equally valuable – as is customer trust.

The potential to leverage customer data to benefit companies is staggering. Mostly, this is because the smartest companies of all use this data to actually benefit their customers. And those companies who put customers first will eventually take over from those brands that look at customer data as little more than digital detritus, treating it accordingly with woefully inadequate protections and little regard for the effect these breaches have on the lives of those affected.

And while customers appear resigned to the drumbeat of personal data loss, trust is an asset even harder to quantify, and to regain.

(Hint to Home Depot: Promises of “free identity-protection services, including credit monitoring, to any potentially impacted customers” mean jack if your data is hacked by a Russian bot, and you end up with a criminally-inclined doppelganger running around with your ID, social and credit card numbers. If you want customers to trust you, do something meaningful to protect them.)

Wonderful things will happen if you use customer data to benefit your customers.

Though it seems a simple idea, the thought of an organization using customer data as a way to create competitive differentiation is actually pretty radical. Today, almost all companies use customer data to market and sell products and services – but using that data in ways that allow them to anticipate customer needs are still rare.

This is going to change. And those companies on the early adoption curve are going to blow by the competition as they use that data to operate in ways that save customers money and time, provide them with better products and information, and more.

While it seems a big promise, customer data can help answer strategic questions that will unlock the doors to an innovative, industry-leading future: What do customers want to know? What products, services or experiences will entrance them? Where are the best opportunities for innovation? Those who wish to thrive will become masters at using data to make customers’ lives easier. There’s a huge opportunity for companies to use data to get on the side of customers.

In closing; Dear Home Depot, et al: Please rethink your approach to your customer data – if not for us, then at least for you. We promise; if you do it right, you can make lots of money and leapfrog your competition. And you can do so while finding ways to make our lives easier, and taking much better care of our personal information.

Speaking for myself, and the rest of your customers – if you can’t take care of our data, then we’ll find someone who will.

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