UK-based retailers were no strangers to data breaches in 2018. In June, Dixons Carphone announced a breach of 5.9 million customer bank card details and 1.2 million personal data records, and the following month, Fortnum & Mason likewise warned customers that their data had been exposed. In fact, since GDPR took effect in May, more than 8,000 data breach reports have been filed in the UK. Each of these breaches involved a notification to the affected users which, combined with accompanying news coverage, is creating a cultural shift in cybersecurity awareness and redefining people’s online shopping habits.
The fact is, very few businesses have the luxury of occupying a unique position in the market without direct competition, and security can—and does—play a role in influencing consumer brand loyalty. Case in point: Following its 2015 hack, TalkTalk lost 100,000 customers.
Considering these dynamics, it is vital that consumer-facing companies view security and privacy not just as the thing that saves them from harm, but as a competitive advantage to be leveraged to drive trade at the loss of those that do not.
Security Standards Are Shifting
Currently, it is a mixed picture as to which organisations advertise their security acumen to their competitive advantage. Of the top five retailers in the UK, three have primary navigation links—named “Privacy Centre” or something similar—on their homepages directing users to their security standards. If I had to guess, I’d say all five top retailers will have a primary link to such a resource by the end of next year.
Online banking institutions appear to be the most acutely aware of security’s influence on customer decision making. This is a perhaps unsurprising, given that their security postures are scored by third party organisations such as Which?, across categories such as two-factor authentication login, encryption, safe navigation and logout.
Since the advent of GDPR—which sets out clear guidelines for companies with regard to how they should store data in their systems, how they should identify and report breaches, and more—we are seeing security positioned as a primary consideration in the build of new online services, so-called ‘data protection by design.’ We could not have conceived of this a new phenomenon prior to GDPR, and it will surely result in a fundamentally different online experience for consumers in the coming years.
The Role of AI in Managing Privacy
Security regulations aren’t the only new influence on managing consumer privacy. New technologies, like AI and IoT devices, are likewise impacting online retail experiences. While the top ten UK retailers don’t currently utilize chatbots or similar AI technology on their websites, chatbots are increasing in popularity among organisations that have complex or diverse product ranges (like H&M’s Virtual Assistant for clothing selection guidance).
As cutting-edge and “cool” as these are, the reality is that any form of online communications can become a vector for cybersecurity attacks. And the newer a technology is, the more likely it will become a focal point for hackers, since gaps tend to exist in technologies that have yet to establish a solid framework of controls. Just ask Delta Airlines and Sears, which suffered targeted attacks on their third-party chat support provider, exposing customer data and payment information.
One of the primary privacy exposures facing these types of online services is the frequency of change in web applications. Decisions on how and when to secure an application can be lost during interactions between developers and security professionals, particularly when code changes can be upwards of thousands per day. How do you reduce this risk? One way is via the application of machine learning to understand and patrol the “good” behavior of web application use, as opposed to chasing the ever-lengthening tail of “bad” behaviors and deploying access control lists.
The Way Forward
By pushing privacy to the forefront of customer experiences, online retailers can differentiate themselves from competitors. A recent Radware survey discovered just how security conscious UK consumers are: They are liable to abandon brand loyalty in exchange for a secure online shopping experience. Organisations would do well to invest in strong cybersecurity if they want to increase trust and attract new customers at key trading periods. Otherwise, retailers stand to lose their competitive advantage by encouraging customers to exercise their true power, their power to go elsewhere.