By Crystal Woody, Senior Director of Strategic Communications at Privitar
Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Christina Bechhold Russ, Director at Samsung NEXT, an early-stage venture capital fund investing in software and services. Christina also co-founded Empire Angels, a New York-based fund and angel network of young professionals investing in early-stage startups, with a focus on supporting millennial entrepreneurs. She is a regular contributor on startups and leadership for the Wall Street Journal, a mentor for Startup Sesame and the Entrepreneurial Refugee Network and sits on venture fund advisory boards in both the US and South America. Christina is also a TEDx speaker, and was recognized by the New York Business Journal as a 2016 Woman of Influence, by Business Insider as a Woman to Watch in Venture Capital in 2018 and by Management Today & The Daily Telegraph as one of Britain’s 35 Women Under 35 in 2019.
During our conversation, we discussed the balance of data utilization and consumer empowerment, how consumers can better protect their data, and how businesses can harness the power of technology to protect their customers. The transcript of our interview follows.
Christina will share additional insights on Data Privacy Technology and Consumer Empowerment on May 14th (5:30pm BST / 12:30pm EDT) during In:Confidence Digital. For more information about her session, or to register for free, visit: https://inconfidence.privitar.com/digital
CW: How does Samsung NEXT define ‘consumer empowerment’ and what are you looking to invest in?
CBR: We believe in a not so distant future where consumers have the agency and control to determine how they interact with technology and how they leverage technology to interact with each other. In this regard, our Ventures team looks to invest in technologies and business models that give consumers more control of their data, their attention, their intention, and their time.
CW: Can consumer empowerment and data utilization for businesses truly co-exist?
CBR: The short answer: yes. The reality is that today, too many companies wield extensive influence due to a primary business model built around personal data mining, tech addiction and surveillance advertising. We believe these companies are more vulnerable than they appear because their business model is under threat, from government regulation, antitrust scrutiny, and consumer backlash. As a result, a growing number of startups are emerging to take on these incumbents, and challenge their dominance. Last year, we invested in Scroll, which makes it easier and faster for consumers to navigate content on the web by partnering with publishers to show ad-free content. Instead of ad-blocking, Scroll employs a membership model, and measures the engaged time spent with that site to calculate how much that site should earn each month. It’s also peace of mind for the consumer to know that their data is never sold or given to anyone.
CW: What can consumers do to better protect their privacy rights and data?
CBR: Individuals are realizing that the vast amounts of information being collected about them is not always used to their advantage. The expansive nature of this data collection, which originally made the problem difficult for consumers to grasp, has now instead engendered distrust and concern on how this information can be used against them. There are certainly different generational attitudes, though—my relationship with privacy as a consumer is very different from that of my parents; as a Millennial, I’m more likely to be comfortable trading my data in exchange for more personalization, for example.
In 2019, we announced the first cohort of the Samsung NEXT Stack Zero Grant program, a non-equity program to support early-stage teams building decentralized technologies. Grant recipients and a growing network of those concerned with privacy and data control gathered last summer where we tackled an array of topics, including this idea that one of the key problems with the things we build is that they might be used against us. And it’s because of this that many of us today choose to simply mitigate the amount of information about us that we put on the internet. It’s our job to consider how technology needs to be developed for the coming generations who will grow up in a world where living life in public is the norm—where trading privacy for convenience is all they know.
CW: How can businesses harness the power of technology to protect their customers?
CBR: In short, invest in data protection services. In the past months, we’ve seen an increase in enterprise companies viewing data as a liability and actually wanting to minimize how much user data they store. And it makes sense: banks, game developers and financial institutions topped the list of data breaches in 2019. The less data you hold, the less attractive you are as a target. It’s important for businesses to invest in solutions that help them comply with regulations while protecting their customers. In fact, it may even turn out to be less expensive than the alternative.
CW: What is your favorite new privacy technology for businesses?
CBR: We’re most interested in solutions that favor a decentralized approach, especially on device. I’m quite interested in privacy preserving personalization—companies like Canopy, for example, that can use on-device machine learning to customize content recommendations rather than cookies that share your behavior with 30 affiliates.
CW: Anything else you’re paying attention to in the news or otherwise?
CBR: Consumer data privacy and decentralized solutions are front and center right now in the debate over COVID-19 contact tracking—Apple and Google have taken a privacy first approach with their API, while several governments, including the UK, have said they want centralized solutions. The debate will be further complicated as public health authorities evaluate ideas around regular testing and immunity passports. What is a reasonable amount of personal data for a consumer to give up to their government in a health crisis? Who decides? What do businesses need to know to allow consumers access? Can it be architected in a way that ensures, post-pandemic, governments and businesses no longer have that same access, or does this become a regular way of life? Will be very interesting to see how the public and private sectors tackle this.