A hidden digital romping ground is thriving in the dark
The Web is a dynamic, complex and rapidly evolving environment, with literal fortunes made and lost as the waves of change give rise to different business models. However, this complexity is deeper than immediately obvious. Apart from the surface web that most of us experience every day, there is a separate, hidden layer called the dark web. Here the websites are unindexed, access is only possible via Tor, a specialized browser, and communications are usually encrypted. Every aspect of the dark web is designed to provide privacy to its users. If you’ve heard of the dark web before, then it might be related to the number of illicit businesses operating there. It is the home of hackers, drug markets, data brokers, and human traffickers. However, it also serves as a safe haven for whistleblowers, activists, and journalists, as well as citizens from countries where comms are either restricted or monitored. Altogether, it is a place built for individuals who are exceptionally incentivized to be digitally invisible.
The dark web – a dorado for privacy
However, the dark web has its bright sides because it also exists as an unregulated testbed for technologies that we will eventually experience on the surface: WhatsApp, as an example, provides similar end-to-end encrypted communication, and surface-web consumers start gaining experience with bitcoin whereas in the dark web, they use it for a shadow economy with a GDP larger than Peru’s along with several other cryptocurrencies. That provides us with a useful place to study consumer privacy and have a view of what the surface world might look under an extreme level of consumer data protection. And the extent of that protection is astonishing. When I investigated my own digital footprint on the surface web, I found close to 5000 tracked variables across data aggregators, ranging from absurd guesses to oddly specific details that have been accumulated over the past decade. Conversely, the average ‘persistent’ dark web user – one that decides to keep the same persona for more than a single burst of use – had eight data points. Yet, most smart dark web users who forego this persistent personal branding could choose to leave essentially zero trace of their existence. And with that, they become invisible. Ghosts.
The dark web’s privacy – a nightmare for marketers
This reality should be terrifying to anyone relying on the modern marketing machinery that fuels much of today’s business growth and competitive edge, as all of it relies on abundant information. Lookalike matching, collaborative filtering, precision targeting, audience controls; all of it disappears if everyone is a ghost. Even our best customers will look like never-before-seen individuals until they decide to reveal themselves, by logging in or entering ID information, for instance. And as a result, marketers would be reduced to pre-information-age tactics, reliant on population averages, and at best using unsupervised machine learning techniques, like clustering.
The privacy calculus: Ghosts or Buffs?
But not everything is ghosts, doom and gloom. Ghosting is a consumer choice. This choice between privacy and disclosure is called the privacy calculus. If there is trust, and a worthwhile value exchange, consumers might be willing to share their data and not enact all of the hyper-privacy available to them, continuing to give marketers full view of their behaviors and preferences. We call these customers ‘Buffs` (see Figure 1). For Buffs, marketers will have the full modern array of marketing and predictive analytics available, and provided they are doing their jobs well, one can imagine that this can only lead to higher profitability and retention rates.