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Ideas Data Strategy2021-09-29

Biometrics and Marketing: the new personal data challenge

Mark Bulling

In 2030 Revisited, Essence’s report released earlier this year looking at the future of advertising in 2030, the trend that saw one of the largest Covid-related accelerations, according to our panelists, was the use of biometric data to access, personalize, and/or secure data and services.   

This is not a massive surprise as the past year has seen us move quickly into a cashless society and with that shift, the value of using our face or our fingerprint to conveniently verify that we're happy to make a payment.   

Over the past decade, consumers have become comfortable with using their fingerprints and face as identifiers for accessing services much more conveniently than from entering a password or PIN, whilst also benefiting from being substantially more secure, and harder to be inadvertently leaked to a third party.   

But should marketers take advantage of this rise in the willingness of us to share a different type of information about ourselves?  

Biometric data has been used within marketing for a number of years, although typically in the form of small-scale panels with the explicit opt-in of respondents. Whether using eye tracking, neuro tracking or even measuring sweat levels, marketers have been able to understand much more about the impact of marketing beyond just the results of surveys or lifts in sales.     

However, to date, we have not seen the use of biometric data at scale as a way of determining which ad to show to which person. Many regulators have acknowledged the sensitivity around biometric data, with GDPR counting biometrics within its definition of PII (although it allows for the use of biometrics for specific use cases around fraud and security).    

Beyond regulation, recent years have shown that consumers react badly where they believe that their data is being used inappropriately. To combat this, both Apple and Google have introduced or will be introducing data disclosure information within their respective app stores, enabling consumers to better understand what information is being collected about them. Developers need to be confident that they are able to articulate the value exchange that consumers receive in return for sharing data above and beyond the bare minimum for the app or website to function effectively.    

There has also been a general appreciation within the marketing industry that just because you can use some form of data, it doesn't mean that you should. GroupM's Data Ethics Compass offers a way of evaluating these types of questions across a range of categories and includes biometrics as one of the categories that advertisers are advised to consider carefully as to whether it's an appropriate source of information to use and when.   

The Data Ethics Compass is a first-of-its-kind web app that allows agencies to quickly and consistently evaluate the ethical risk level of data assets, across verticals and geographies. The Compass serves as an ethics ‘North Star’ of sorts for advertisers, taking some of the subjectivity out of decision-making.    

In line with the general focus on privacy, consumers are also likely to focus more on ensuring that where they do share biometric data, it is suitably encrypted to avoid the risk that an unauthorized party gains access to it. The type of encryption (and where it happens) matters a lot. A data breach of biometric data would make historic data breaches of usernames and passwords look pretty inconsequential in comparison to having immutable data about fingerprints available to third parties.   

In conclusion then, whilst it is likely that we will increasingly use biometric data as a means of securely accessing services, it seems much less likely that we will see the widespread use of biometrics within marketing at scale in the near term. Both regulation and industry changes are limiting the ways that such data can be used, whilst consumers are becoming increasingly aware of what data is being requested by apps and services. There will likely continue to be subjective areas in the use of biometric data and we as an industry will benefit from clearer decision processes for evaluating whether it is appropriate to use such forms of data within marketing. The Data Ethics Compass is a good place to start.