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By Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.

While the number of pundits who downplay the link between trust and privacy and/or security has declined precipitously in the wake of well-publicized security breaches by private- and public-sector organizations, there remain a few holdouts. They claim that trust is inherently unmeasurable and that linking it to something few consumers truly understand -- data protection and its complexities -- makes it even more so.

A recent survey of 3,669 consumers across eight European countries provides even more fodder for debate. According to the Unisys Trusted Enterprise study, the link between trust and privacy/security varies considerably from one country to the next. On one hand, 81 percent of respondents from the United Kingdom consider an organization's ability to protect and secure their data an important factor in building trust. On the other hand, only 42 percent of French consumers, 40 percent of Belgian consumers and 35 percent of German consumers feel the same way.

The trust split extends to information technology and security. Seventy-five percent of UK respondents say that "dependable" organizational practices are an essential factor in building and sustaining trust. People in other European countries don't necessarily agree: Only 36 percent of French consumers, 28 percent of Spanish consumers and 27 percent of Italian consumers cite dependable IT as a key trust-building attribute.

The disparities among countries took Unisys by surprise, according to Rene Head, the firm's head of enterprise security in continental Europe. "We would have expected more consistency in that regard," he said. "What I think the results tell us is that trust is very perceptive and that we ought to be wary about making big, broad generalizations about it."

The smartest organizations, Head believes, will take the survey's results as a sign that they have to be considerably more flexible when it comes to tailoring privacy and security practices to each market and each type of relationship. He says the days of "trying to have a defensive perimeter around the organization" are just about over, suggesting instead that companies pursue different types of privacy and security practices in their interactions with consumers, vendors and other partners. Only by addressing needs on a case-by-case basis can a company engender a high level of trust.

One might interpret another of the study's findings -- that around 75 percent of European consumers count biometric devices designed to ensure security (fingerprint and iris scanners, for example) as a trust-enhancing technology -- in two ways: Either that consumers are so worried about the sanctity of their personal information that they're willing to give a wide berth to any technology that enhances it, or that consumers are so comfortable with the current state of affairs that they have no problem with placing their trust in heretofore unfamiliar technologies. Head leans towards the former interpretation.

"I don't think a majority of people really understand what technology can do for them, and I think there's a great amount of confusion about how the bad guys can use information against them. They're not sure exactly who to trust," he explained. "There's almost an outcry right now for more effective technology to help security and privacy, whether it's biometrics or something else." Head senses a willingness among surveyed consumers to take that extra step -- by, say, purchasing an authenticating USB key or by receiving a second PIN or passcode for a Web transaction via text message.

So where does all this leave an organization hoping, through its privacy and security practices, to augment trust among its current and potential customers? From the study's results, it seems clear that fine-tuning privacy and security strategies on a market-by-market basis is a good place to start. Communicating practices in a readily comprehensible manner, needless to say, will help consumers get past their wariness when it comes to such matters.

In terms of truly building trust, though, Head believes organizations must consistently work to allay consumer fears about intrusions, especially as stories about privacy and security pratfalls appear in the media on an almost daily basis. "Most of the time, [companies] are only concerned about the negative," he said. "Rather than being vocal and up-front when something has happened, they should work to assure their customers when things are good. That buys them a little credibility in the event of a [privacy or security] meltdown."

You can reach Don Peppers and Martha Rogers at dpeppers@1to1.com or rogers@1to1.com.

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