News & Views

Mind Your Own Business


Image: @QuantumPirate, via Twitter

So, yes, Amazon’s Prime Air concept is just incredible (using drones to deliver its products, in case you haven’t seen it). But does anyone else feel conflicted about its wider implications? Post-PRISM, post-iPhone accidental tracking, post-countless password leaks, privacy’s developed into the biggest topic of the year. That includes, just recently, an op-ed in the Economist, and Tim Berners-Lee in The Guardian today discussing the legal, cultural, psychological and moral implications of intrusions on individual privacy. Culturally this is part of a much wider ripple of discontent among the chattering classes, led by anti-tech utopians like Evgeny Morozov and web pioneer Jaron Lanier, who argue that Big Tech (Facebook, Google and Twitter) is essentially privitisating the web, and our digital lives.

Broadly, the more we live our lives online, the more we can be monitored, and ultimately monetised. For brands, this has long been a bonanza, but it may be turning into a blight. Why? Because as long as people were happy sharing every part of their life on social networks with scant regard for who was watching, their data has provided marketers unparalleled opportunities for targeting. But the signs are that attitudes may be changing.

In July, Gigaom reported on a study from Forrester, which found that 62% of people are ‘not at all likely’ to repeat buy from a company that shares their data with a broker. The report’s analyst, it goes on, argued that privacy policy could be the next green movement, adding ‘misuse and abuse of data will impact profitability’. Privacy, in short, could well become the next marketing differentiator.

At Contagious, we’ve already seen a burgeoning cottage industry in clandestine tech. Secure messaging services like, disappearing posts via BlinkLink and dark web home applicances like PogoPlug’s Safeplug are catering to people’s paranoia. Artist Adam Harvey’s CV Dazzle make-up disrupts facial recognition technology, while his anti-drone hoody disguises wearers from aerial observation, both statements on personal empowerment from the surveillance state.

Brands seem to be slower to respond (as a marketer, what do you ask people to share when they interact with your brand on Facebook?), but perhaps empowerment and control is the vital element. Ultimately as much as people are concerned about their data, they’re awfully keen on the convenience of cookies in delivering a better web experience. ‘Some 51.3 percent of respondents said that they’re more likely to interact with an ad that allowed them to opt-out of online tracking,’ said DAA managing director Lou Mastria of research into attitudes to tracking in a Pando Daily article. ‘Even more — 73% — said they would be more comfortable with such ads if they explained how they were being tracked. Letting people know they’re being stalked might actually help advertisers that otherwise would have simply creeped everyone out.’

What to do then? Governments are playing catch up with the legalities of surveillance technology (well, publicly, at least). Brands, however, might have an opportunity to carve out a commercial advantage. A first step would be something Contagious has long advocated: transparency. People are becoming more digitally literate - marketers should explain why they’re collecting data, what it’s used for, and what they can expect in return, as well as simplifying terms and conditions and giving their customers access to the information they’re collecting.

That’s not as farfetched as it might seem. In the early nineties,Wired’s Kevin Kelly predicted that the ability of people to find out everything about companies - radical transparency - would reshape the operations of businesses. That shift in culture and social mores, aligned with technology, turned ethical business operations into purpose-driven marketing collateral for everyone from Nike to Unilever. Why couldn’t data transparency do the same?