The Pew Research Center, after data-crunching a decade of surveys about the tech industry, has come to a somewhat disconcerting conclusion: Over the past several years, a rising percentage of Americans felt that technology companies have a negative effect on the country. (And yet technologists themselves feel optimistic about their future prospects. Go figure.)
“Controversies related to digital privacy, made-up news, harassment and other issues may have taken their toll on public attitudes about tech companies,” added Pew’s research note, which analyzes 10 years’ worth of various tech trends. “The share of Americans who say these companies are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country has declined sharply since 2015.”
In 2015, some 71 percent of U.S. adults thought that tech companies had a positive impact, versus 50 percent today. Roughly as many (51 percent) believe that major tech companies should face more regulation in areas such as privacy and data security.
For your average technologist, this negative sentiment can have pretty big implications. For example, if you’re launching an app, or even a startup, you should remain aware of consumers’ heightened awareness of security and privacy; in the current environment, even a minor breach can lead to a catastrophic loss in consumer confidence (followed by the inevitable implosion of your endeavor). You may also need to be much more transparent about your collection and use of data, given how many citizens feel burned by how Facebook, Google, and other firms have monetized their personal details over the years.
In fact, many technologists simply won’t have a choice when it comes to things like security and privacy, whether or not they’re launching a startup or working for a well-established company. Almost four years after the launch of GDPR, the EU law on data protection and privacy, more U.S. states are pushing out similar legislation designed to protect citizens’ data and rights online. For example, California now has the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which requires companies to reveal the kinds of personal information they collect on users. There are also provisions designed to stop tech firms from selling that personal data to third-party vendors without a user’s permission.
Even if most states (or the federal government) don’t adopt a CCPA-like law over the next few years, California’s decision will nonetheless impact tech companies across the country. “Some businesses might apply CCPA rights across the board because they’re not able to effectively delineate between California consumers and others,” Alex Nisenbaum, an associate at a law firm that advises companies on how to comply with CCPA, recently told Fast Company.
This push toward privacy and security is just one reason why some pundits think that Chief Privacy Officer could become the next big job in tech. These “CPOs” are tasked with ensuring that all privacy and data-usage policies are legally and ethically ironclad; in addition, they also attempt to stay abreast of new laws, and work with the company’s cybersecurity and PR professionals to handle data breaches or other incidents.
Even without CPOs, though, it’s clear that technologists will need to pay a lot more attention to privacy and security in the year and decade ahead. If they do so, there’s a good chance that consumer perceptions of the tech industry as a whole could slowly but surely improve.