The paradox of data: can financial services avoid a Cambridge Analytica?

For the financial services industry, Facebook’s new cryptocurrency, Libra, is yet another warning that digital technology is chipping away at the foundation of traditional business models.

If bankers were reading the wires on June 18, they might have choked on the Libra news. Among them, the old-school capitalists, still tarnished by the financial crisis, would have asked how Facebook, one of the most vilified and discredited consumer brands, can credibly claim to author this new chapter of global finance.

Facebook’s answer: a media blitz that turned aside current controversies, including the company’s damaged credibility, and presented a set of reasoned, if untested, solutions. Facebook fended off its key public trust issues by recruiting a long list of respected brand names, as well as non-profits and public policy groups, to serve as founding members of Libra’s repository enterprise, Calibra.

To be sure, the launch was not entirely successful. Within hours, leaders on Capitol Hill issued condemnations, called for public hearings and demanded Facebook halt work on Libra, pending review.

In addition, the announcement drew attention to rivals in the non-crypto digital payment space, such as Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay, which have dominant shares of China’s $23 billion mobile payment market. Apple Pay also has built a significant U.S. market share largely via dollar-based transactions.

Banks have not joined Calibra yet, but they have been following in Facebook’s footsteps for several years, collecting, aggregating and selling consumer data. Data monetization strategies now represent a multi-billion dollar opportunity for consumer finance companies and, according to one study, the growth rate is 35% globally, with margins as high as 85%.

While the industry continues to deploy data resources across their enterprises, they must face a different but equally difficult business challenge: disclosure and customer transparency. Bankers cannot afford to ignore the lesson that Facebook teaches about public opinion. In our culture today, profiting from socially-shared, non-commercial information is increasingly unacceptable.

The dilemma, of course, is that consumer financial service companies cannot compete unless they move aggressively into digital offerings, but their headlong rush into such innovations as AI-driven investment advice, instant loan approvals and third-party payment ventures could trigger a financial services equivalent of Cambridge Analytica.

How likely is such a scenario? We already have witnessed hacks that expose the vulnerability of data repositories, both commercial and government. For the banking industry, the risks remain imminent. A 2017 survey by the Depository Trust Clearing Corporation ranked cyber risk as the number one systemic risk. In a 2018 study, IBM found that cleaning up after a data breach cost the average bank $3.86 million, up 6.4 percent in a single year.

Companies that suffer an attack must respond quickly and decisively. Non-disclosure is not an option. Under GDPR, European operations must report data losses within 72 hours. Thus, the most basic risk management plan must include a public outreach strategy that enables the dissemination of accurate information to multiple audiences rapidly, repeatedly and consistently.

Credit Facebook with building support for Libra around just such a sustainability cause. Near the top of its press release, Facebook noted: “…For many people around the world, even basic financial services are still out of reach: almost half of the adults in the world don’t have an active bank account…”

Across banking and fintech, innovative technologies already have established a proven track record of financial inclusion. Leaders need to point to these and look for opportunities to implement their own.

In 2007, Kenya’s banking sector embraced a new mobile phone payment system from Vodafone, MPesa. Today, MPesa is the dominant form of consumer transactions in the country, as well as Tanzania. In a widely cited study by Georgetown University and MIT professors, MPesa was shown to have “…increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.”

The case for data as a driver of financial inclusion is persuasive. Bank and fintech brands that articulate benefits like these, while confronting public concerns with more transparency, stand a good chance of succeeding in the digital age. In order to win the support of new audiences and digital age customers, fintech and banking leaders need to define and rededicate themselves to acceptable standards of protecting and optimizing private and public assets.

Pen Pendleton is the co-founder of CLP Strategies, a business and financial communications consultancy