Adobe wants to help customers meet data privacy standards – but are they doing enough?

LAS VEGAS – When asked to articulate his company’s approach to data privacy, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said he believes the software maker has “a responsibility and an obligation” to not just encourage marketers to harness more data, but to govern its use as well.

The topic was no doubt on the minds of reporters during a Mar. 27 question-and-answer session at Adobe Summit, the company’s annual marketing conference, thanks to Facebook’s recent Cambridge Analytica woes, but would have been relevant regardless after a day-one keynote whose product demonstrations included a personalized hotel room (by Marriott International) capable of greeting guests by name, or even wishing them happy birthday with a box of chocolates, based on their loyalty program data.

“Putting the user in control of the experience that they desire is front and centre to anybody getting the experience that they have,” Narayen told when asked if Adobe’s Experience Cloud platform accounted for the fact that some users might want to opt out of seeing their name on the TV screen when first entering their hotel room.

Narayen said that while he believes mass personalization is a “phenomenal” first step on a marketing department’s digital transformation journey, such personalization should always respect the boundaries of the customer sharing their data.

“I think the obligation that emerges when you interact with a website is, the website is obligated to tell you what data they are collecting on your behalf, what they can do with respect to it, and whether or not they have the rights to engage with other third parties on it,” he said. “At its core, the trust that needs to be created between a company and the individual is, tell me what you’re collecting and how you’re using it.”

Narayen also said his company was playing close attention to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the new data privacy regulations scheduled to take effect in the region on May 25, and would “take the lead” when it came to its reinforcement.

“We’re going to be training for [GDPR], and are leading the way in terms of [its implementation],” he said. “It’s important for us to be on the leading edge of how we deal with customers in terms of how they’re interfacing with us, and then in how we provide the right tools to our enterprise customers so that they can reach them.”

During the same question-and-answer session, Adobe Experience Cloud general manager Brad Rencher said the company was taking a privacy by design approach to updating its marketing platform, and was aware that the lax privacy standards once enjoyed by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica would no longer be available to customers in the future.

“Whether it’s PII [personally identifiable information]… or whether it’s GDPR, it’s certain that legally you’re not going to be able to use data the way that it’s been used in the past,” Rencher said. “So in all of our product development we’ve taken a privacy by design approach so that we can be open and transparent, but also so that we can help the brands that we work with have that relationship of trust with their customers.”

The official policy: Data labelling

In a separate interview Adobe Analytics product manager Trevor Paulsen, who specializes in data mining and predictive analytics techniques, told that Adobe customers are contractually obligated to label their data, with certain labels carrying tight restrictions.

Trevor Paulsen

“We have a system that internally we call DULE… Data Usage, Labelling, and Enforcement,” he said. “Any dataset that a customer uses in conjunction with Adobe or from Adobe itself gets properly labelled in terms of how that data can be used and exposed, and can be flagged with the obligations associated with that dataset.”

For example, he said, demographic data gathered by third parties cannot be combined with email addresses without the customer’s express permission, and so Adobe ensures that businesses using its software can label a demographic dataset and ensure that it can’t be combined with an email database.

However, such standards rely on Adobe’s customers to police their actions, rather than Adobe itself, according R. “Ray” Wang, principal analyst, founder, and chair of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research Inc.

Ray Wang

“I think recent events have people wondering how their data is being used, and the answer from Adobe seems to be that they’ve left an open system for other people to use,” Wang told “They’ve facilitated the tools that allow people to collect and use that data and then monetize it… but I think they believe it’s up to the companies on the other end to apply their privacy policies.”

Indeed, when asked to articulate Adobe’s responsibility in ensuring that customers using its platform take advantage of data labelling features, Paulsen demurred.

“Obviously data privacy and security is an ecosystem accomplishment,” he said. “We work closely with partners to make sure that they’re labelling data correctly… and we have many ways to make sure it’s enforced and correctable if a mistake gets made.”

“Gentle balance” needed – expert

R2integrated CEO Jen Quinlan, whose marketing firm has helped brands including Microsoft, Mastercard, and Chrysler target specific audience segments using a mix of analytics platforms including Adobe’s, said a “gentle balance” is required when it comes to customer data use in marketing.

Jen Quinlan

“There is a very real aspect of today’s digital world that wants to know me, understand me, give me that Amazon experience,” she said. “But I think brands are struggling with how much do I tell you that I know about you, and what will you perceive as uncomfortable or disruptive.”

The best brands, in Quinlan’s opinion – and she would count Marriott among them – identify not only what their customers are interested in, but how comfortable they are with the brands learning from their behaviour, trading personal information for a more personalized experience.

“Ultimately, as consumers or customers of a brand, we all want different things,” she said. “Many people would be excited by Marriott remembering their birthday – I get chocolates in my room! The television greets me by name! This is great! – while others would feel like somebody is following them.”

In R2i’s case, she said, the company preaches the importance of enabling users to articulate their own interests first, and then using analytics to identify and enhance their patterns of behaviour.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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