A paradigm-shifting conversation with one of my editors prompted to consider the merit of not targeting online ads using consumers’ personal information. That, in turn, led to my latest article on MarkLives titled “Marketers should reconsider targeted online ads” which was published today:
Conventional wisdom in the marketing industry seems to be that better targeted ads are more effective. It makes sense. If you can present an ad to a consumer whom you believe is actually interested in your services, surely that consumer will be more inclined to purchase from you?
A prominent example of this thinking in action is Facebook, where ads are customised based on your Facebook activity and profile data. If you start posting about your love for sushi and share that love in your profile, you can be sure you will soon see ads for sushi products and restaurants alongside your News Feed.
One of the implications of not targeting consumers using their personal information is that your marketing campaigns may sidestep the Protection of Personal Information Act’s constraints. It is an interesting benefit, if that pans out, because of the compliance overhead the Act requires. Of course marketers would have to weigh up the benefits of targeting ads using personal information and the costs of complying with the Protection of Personal Information Act but its an interesting idea.
There is more to my article so go read it and let me know what you think?
Ello seems to have captured everyone’s attention with the promise of a better social network that addresses the challenges facing Facebook for many users. I don’t have access to Ello yet but based on what I can glean from the Ello site, it isn’t anything to get excited about. Here is an extract from my article on htxt titled “Is Ello the answer to Facebook privacy concerns, or is there another Path?“:
The hype around Ello reminds me of another social network that promised relief from Facebook’s unblinking gaze: Path. Like Ello, Path doesn’t use personal data to inform ads on its network. Path has no ads and, instead, relies on paid premium features to generate revenue to fund its operations. Unlike Ello, Path is private by design. If you are looking for a social network which is not being indexed by search engines and where you can share your personal stuff with a select group of friends with meaningful control over who can see your stuff, then Path is your better bet.
Ello isn’t really solving a problem that hasn’t been solved. Path is a far better bet for privacy conscious users. The real challenge isn’t finding an alternative to Facebook, it is persuading enough people to switch to the Facebook alternative to make the alternative a viable social network. Ello may be a far superior experience (I don’t have my invitation yet so I don’t have first-hand experience with Ello) but it will fail to gain enough traction to make a dent in Facebook’s userbase for one simple reason: everyone is using Facebook and it works well for them.
If anything, Ello inspires more faith in the Path vision:
The more I think about it, the more I realise that #Ello’s model highlights how much more thought @davemorin put into @Path’s privacy model.
One of the responses to revelations of NSA and the UK’s GCHQ surveillance of our data is a throwback to that idea that privacy is dead and we should “get over it” and adapt to a world of almost radical publicity. Coupled with this position is the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from increasing encroachment on your privacy. Both arguments are either the product of particularly narrow perceptions of privacy or a self-serving business model.
To describe the problems created by the collection and use of personal data, many commentators use a metaphor based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell depicted a harrowing totalitarian society ruled by a government called Big Brother that watches its citizens obsessively and demands strict discipline. The Orwell metaphor, which focuses on the harms of surveillance (such as inhibition and social control), might be apt to describe government monitoring of citizens. But much of the data gathered in computer databases, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or marital status, isn’t particularly sensitive. Many people don’t care about concealing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of beverages they drink. Frequently, though not always, people wouldn’t be inhibited or embarrassed if others knew this information.
Another metaphor better captures the problems: Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka’s novel centers around a man who is arrested but not informed why. He desperately tries to find out what triggered his arrest and what’s in store for him. He finds out that a mysterious court system has a dossier on him and is investigating him, but he’s unable to learn much more. The Trial depicts a bureaucracy with inscrutable purposes that uses people’s information to make important decisions about them, yet denies the people the ability to participate in how their information is used.
The problems portrayed by the Kafkaesque metaphor are of a different sort than the problems caused by surveillance. They often do not result in inhibition. Instead they are problems of information processing—the storage, use, or analysis of data—rather than of information collection. They affect the power relationships between people and the institutions of the modern state. They not only frustrate the individual by creating a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, but also affect social structure by altering the kind of relationships people have with the institutions that make important decisions about their lives.
Choosing to live a life of radical publicity where anyone can view almost any aspect of your life may be a choice for some (although I suspect even the most radically transparent people still have some private space) but it shouldn’t be a lifestyle forced on anyone, especially by inherently paranoid, suspicious and secretive government agencies who are collecting data for the purpose of identifying what they deem to be unacceptable behaviours and trends.
One of the fundamental components of the right to privacy is the right to the right to “informational self-determination”. This has been recognised by our Constitutional Court and is the central issue Solove describes in his overview of Kafka’s book. What the NSA, GCHQ and other agencies are doing is utterly disregarding our entitlement to keep aspects of our lives secret as well as our right to have some measure of control over how our personal information and data is used, in part to ensure that it is processed bearing in mind the appropriate context.
Simply accepting that “privacy is dead” is foolish. It isn’t and it shouldn’t be. It is certainly injured by our governments’ callous disregard for it and utter failure to develop mechanisms to safeguard our security without sacrificing our right to privacy and dignity in the process. We may be heading towards a world of radical transparency, in some respects at least, but that goes both ways.
Similarly, the notion that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from this sort of surveillance (the same thing applies to commercial entities) is, quite frankly, immature and the product of a total failure to appreciate the complexities of what the right to privacy entails in the first place.
This is one of those things to resist, not just throw up your hands and try figure out how to live in a glass house with no curtains.
Revelations about the American surveillance program called PRISM have been astounding, not so much because we have discovered that the US government has been spying on, well, everyone both within the United States and internationally, but because of the sheer scale of the program. This story initially broke on The Guardian when Glenn Greenwald reported that the US National Security Agency was collecting information on Verizon customers (Verizon is one of the US mobile networks) –
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.
The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.
The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now. It may be the first of its kind. The NSA prides itself on stealing secrets and breaking codes, and it is accustomed to corporate partnerships that help it divert data traffic or sidestep barriers. But there has never been a Google or Facebook before, and it is unlikely that there are richer troves of valuable intelligence than the ones in Silicon Valley.
James Allworth, in his article titled “Your Smartphone Works for the Surveillance State” drew a number of parallels between PRISM and the East German Stasi police which used a previously unprecedented network of informers and secret police officers to spy on East German citizens before the Berlin wall fell. One of the more interesting statements from lawmakers defending the program was quoted from the New York Times in Allworth’s article –
The defense of this practice offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be preventing this sort of overreaching, was absurd. She said on Thursday that the authorities need this information in case someone might become a terrorist in the future.
Of course this idea goes, in part, to the right to be presumed innocent and to an array of protections that relate to this presumption of innocence and a respect for a citizen’s privacy. President Obama commented in a press conference that the program was not being used to monitor US citizens, only people living outside the United States. This turns out to be false and emphasises the fact that everyone is exposed to this program and our use of social services on the Web only exacerbates the extent to which people’s privacy is being disregarded, seemingly indiscriminately. We are horrified at the extent to which former East German citizens were subjected to intense and pervasive scrutiny and yet the scale at which modern governments do the same thing far exceeds the Stasi’s hopes. As Allworth points out –
And yet, here we are. In terms of the capability to listen to, watch and keep tabs on what its citizens are doing, the East German government could not possibly have dreamed of achieving what the United States government has managed to put in place today.
At the same time, we are complicit. We generate tremendous amounts of data about our lives and publish this data on the social Web where it can be accessed and analysed –
Think about the proportion of our lives that are undertaken online and digitally. Every tweet, every interaction on Facebook, every photo on Instagram. You search for directions with a myriad of online mapping options. You check in your location on Foursquare. You review restaurants you’ve visited on Yelp. You speak to people all over the world using Skype. Every time you have a question, you type it into Google, or perhaps ask it on Quora. An increasing amount of your purchases are conducted on eBay or Amazon. You back up your laptop to the cloud. Almost everything you listen to or read is there too, or in iTunes. And while you might scoff at these as something that only early adopters use, even late adopters of digital technologies leave behind an incredibly detailed trail of their lives. Every minute you spend on the phone; in fact, every minute you carry it around in your pocket; every email you write; every instant message you send. Every transaction that passes through your credit card is recorded.
If I were a US citizen, and the NSA had half as much data on me as Google does, they’d be able to use that data to make a conclusive determination that I am not a person of interest… to anyone. Even my friends wouldn’t be interested in reading my emails. Most people’s lives aren’t interesting.
And if I were the sort of person the NSA were interested in, I should probably be locked up before I flew a plane into a building anyway… my privacy be damned.
I agree with him, to a point. As far as we are aware, these programs are intended to identify and track criminals and if we are living relatively honest lives, we probably need not be too concerned about our activities being tracked, stored and analysed. The problem is that these programs are typically opaque to public scrutiny. To quote Allworth again –
Now, if this was an ideological principle — a deep and profound belief in transparency, and the disinfecting power of sunlight — then, again, at least it would be understandable. But it’s not that, either. Simultaneously, while doing everything it can to watch you, the government is taking another page out of the East German playbook — doing everything it can to stop you from watching it.
Bringing this closer to home, we are still debating the Protection of State Information Bill which was recently passed by Parliament and is awaiting the President’s signature. It is likely still unconstitutional despite changes made to the Bill (read Pierre De Vos’ thoughts on this here). Irrespective of whether the so-called Secrecy Bill passes constitutional muster, the real challenge here in South Africa, as it appears to be in the United States, is an underlying culture of “secrecy” and a severe allergy to transparency even though improved transparency would introduce a much needed counter-balance to this increased scrutiny by governments.
On a related point, I read an article by Michael Schrage titled “When Digital Marketing Gets Too Creepy” which highlights a similar trend in the commercial world. This article focuses on how brands are using increasingly detailed collections of personal information about their customers to customise their experiences. This is the value we, as consumers, receive in exchange for disclosing our personal information and preferences but this question Schrage asks, presupposes that this is beneficial. On balance, I think it is but it does come with quite a hefty price: we essentially forgo privacy as a form of secrecy and we move closer to what Jeff Jarvis referred to as “radical transparency” in his book, Public Parts, in which he explores the benefits of greater publicity as opposed to secrecy (a counterpoint to Jarvis’ arguments is Andrew Keen’s book, Digital Vertigo).
The problem we face, whether it be from government programs like PRISM, legislation like the Secrecy Bill or marketing initiatives driven by more and more personal information which we disclose on a daily basis as we share our lives on the social Web is that we have limited control over the personal information we disclose (probably none once it enters national security databases) and we have even less insights into the many ways our personal information is being collected, used and the conclusions that are being drawn about us as a result. Wide ranging programs collecting our data to prevent terrorism, crime or irrelevant ads have their merits but until we are empowered to make informed choices about those programs, we may as well be back in East Germany or Apartheid South Africa and subject to the whims of over-reaching politicians who have forgotten the old adage that “with great power, comes great responsibility”.