Privacy dominates digital future discussion in Davos

Marc Benioff (2nd R) of the United States, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, talks as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (2nd L) during the 'new digital context' session at the Davos Economic Forum on January 22, 2014. ERIC PIERMONT/AFP/Getty Images

This post was written by Hannah Fraser-Chanpong

DAVOS, Switzerland - Internet users will never have total privacy, a group of chief executives of communication and Internet companies said Wednesday.

"I don't think we as a society want 100 percent privacy," said AT&T chairman and chief executive officer Randall Stephenson, speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. "But I think the debate is right."

The debate is over how much privacy users give up in order to be protected. Stephenson used law enforcement as an example of why some data should be shared, describing how the police can use cell phone signals to locate a person in need.

Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo, emphasized that the government should provide transparency about what data is requested and collected when citizens use technology.

"When you go through security at the airport, when you sign up for a driver's license, you know exactly what you're disclosing to the government and you know what you get in exchange," Mayer said.

Salesforce.com Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff added: "If everybody saw the detail, they would probably be completely comfortable. How can you trust something you don't know?"

The discussion about data security and privacy stemmed from an hour-long, wide-ranging conversation about "The New Digital Context," one of the first panels at the conference, the now-famous gathering of top businesspeople, heads of state and often the odd celebrity. George Colony, the chief executive officer of Forrester Research, moderated the panel, which also included Cisco chief executive officer John Chambers and Gavin Patterson, the chief executive officer of BT Group, a British telecommunications company.

Chambers called interconnectedness through devices "the biggest transition" coming to the digital world.

"It'll drive productivity of countries," Chambers said. "It will change business models. It will change our everyday lives."

Mayer said mobile apps are at the root of the change. Apps from companies like Airbnb, which allows users to rent out rooms or entire homes, and TaskRabbit, which helps users find people nearby to help run errands and do small jobs, are making us more efficient.

When "you know exactly what's happening in your home," she said, "and you can verify who the person is who is going to be renting it and sharing it with you, it makes connecting and trusting those people that much easier."

The panelists were overall enthusiastic about the future of the technology industry.

"There's never been a more exciting time," Benioff said. "It's usually the Nobel laureates at the World Economic Forum doing the economic review and we took their spot this year because technology is really important."

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