Right and Wrong Lessons From Recent Data Breaches

Dave Lewis
Apr. 26, 2011 by Dave Lewis

My friend Ken Magill has been right to call out some of the over-the-top (arguably stupid) assertions made around the Epsilon breach. But there’s another category of statements that offend my sensibilities – those that take this unfortunate incident and an issue core to the well-being of our industry — customer trust — and twist them to their competitive advantage. Or try to, anyway.

I recently read an article by another well-known commentator in this space. While saying many things I agreed with and saying them well, the author also characterized the problem and solution in ways that I found to be fundamentally wrong and self-serving. He suggested that the answer was for brands to insource their email and even that consumers should lobby brands to keep their data in-house.

Before getting into the particulars of those arguments, let me say this – as marketers, we all know how to manipulate issues to our advantage. That’s part our job and I’ll be the first to admit having done so. Had this article appeared under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have registered a blip on my radar. But circumstances are not normal and now is not the time for self-serving pursuits. Too much is at stake. When breaches occur, customers don’t differentiate between one company or provider and the next, especially when sensationalized in the press or by politicians with their own agendas. The same dirty brush tars us all.

As for the author’s simplistic assessment of the solution (insource instead of outsource), it regrettably ignores the facts and nature of the challenge at hand. Yes, there’s been a string of unfortunate data breaches at service providers – some very public, some not. But the facts are that there have been far more breaches (and of a more serious nature) at individual companies. So truly, this is not about whether companies insource or outsource their email or not. We all know there are ways to safeguard customer data in either environment and that there are vulnerabilities in both at present.

As An Industry We Need To Do Better

The issue is not about whether companies can trust their service providers either. It’s about our entire ecosystem being under attack, an attack that’s aimed at all of us — companies and service providers alike and everyone else in this industry who provides technology, product or services that might touch how customer data is captured, stored, transmitted or utilized.

As for the suggestion that consumers should somehow lobby to keep their data in-house at companies — really? That’s beyond the pale. I question how further inciting consumers around this issue is helpful to restoring trust. And who exactly is served by this message. It’s certainly doesn’t serve the interests of our industry or advance its efforts to resolve the problem.

As I’ve said before, this is a time for us to close ranks as an industry and get on with the real work that needs to be done – collectively hardening our defenses to prevent breaches and improving our detection capabilities to spot them early when they occur. And this will take collaboration between all industry stakeholders at a business and technical level.

Technology Providers Need to Lead

As technology providers, I’d submit that we could play a more constructive role by lending our technical expertise to the industry discussion. And, of course, further hardening our own products and making sure clients are well instructed in their security features to protect their valuable data assets. That’s the focus of our company at least.

And this brings me to my final point – our ecosystem. We’re all part of this ecosystem and have a stake in protecting it by solving the security issues that jeopardize the trust of our customers. I’m not speaking of an ecosystem in which customer data is irresponsibly shared, but the data-driven ecosystem that the future of digital messaging demands. And the one on which our collective livelihood depends, brings value to companies, and permits them to conduct the ‘relevant dialogues with customers’ to which the author alludes.

So let’s dial back our competitive instincts a bit, welcome the innovative thinking and new products that will help us counter the attacks targeted against our individual companies and ecosystem. And as we seek to restore customer trust, let’s not tear at the fabric of the trust relationship that makes our own ecosystem work.

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