Digital Analytics Is Not Surveillance

  |  June 17, 2013   |  Comments

And how I warned about this just before the NSA PRISM scandal broke.

Sometimes you have to take credit for your own foresight.

I am going to do that today.

Referencing the column I published two weeks ago - just days before the phone record and NSA PRISM scandals broke - I said "while privacy may be dead, nobody likes surveillance"; and that "we are one or two scandals away from this becoming a mainstream concern."

Two days later, it became a mainstream concern with no less fanfare than a NASCAR winner guzzling milk from a big silver trophy.

Just say I had a feeling.

And now marketers have to deal with lots of new questions about "digital tracking."

First, let me vent.

What the NSA has done is a disgrace to the U.S. Constitution and a subversion of the global Internet. If the terrorists were looking for a damaging result of their outrages, they now have it: the U.S. today spies on all of its citizens just like any number of shabby little despotic regimes. Just as any freedom-hating terrorist might have wished for, we have lowered our expectations about liberty to a position no higher off the ground than a limbo pole at the end of a long night at Sandals.

I am not one of those given to parading across the village green in a tricorn hat brandishing a hateful placard. However, I am a rational observer of history and this is not any kind of change I can believe in.

Our president says it's all cool. I say: trust the government never to misuse data they have collected about me? Absolutely ridiculous.

And it would be funny if it were not giving me that weightless feeling you get when you first notice you are on a slippery slope.

Digital Marketing's New Challenge

We all know about the need for actionable analytics (or we are probably not reading this column). Multi -channel, or convergence analytics depends on gathering data about what people do on their digital devices.

For the most part, Americans hadn't really cared about how much they get tracked while shopping for baby clothes or wine using a digitally connected device. They didn't care much because, being Americans, they trusted in their sovereign rights as U.S. citizens. Corporations might know all they could about your shopping habits, but the worst they could do was send you the wrong offer. OK, maybe if you were not paying your bills, some marketers or credit companies might put the brakes on your race toward the credit cliff. But that is all.

They could not, except under pain of prosecution for breaking the law, sell your data to a thief, or give your data to any enforcement arm of any branch of government (without the transparent, due process artifact of having been served a warrant generated via publicly accessible channels for cause).

It made for a very easy case against what some would have called "privacy zealots." It would have gone something like this:

"What do you care if Williams-Sonoma knows that your computer connected with its server to load a page about a cappuccino machine? Do you put on an invisibility cloak when you go to its brick-and-mortar store?"

That was then.

Now we have to regroup, in light of the privacy zealot being able to crow "I told you so" about digital tracking. Because now we know that every search term you entered and every email you ever sent is available to any one of hundreds of thousands of cubicle-dwellers at Booz Allen (and many others) with the right security clearance. They can't all be paragons of constitutional scholarship. Moreover, they are the outsource destination for a government that now seems to care little for the core document upon which it was founded.

Therefore, as "digital trackers," we have some explaining to do.

Digital Analytics Is not Surveillance

And here's why.

Unless and until the brand or retailer or services company whose site you visited is forced to turn over their analytics reports to a government-contractor spy agency, you cannot come to any harm via the data that has been collected about your (usually) anonymous interaction with their content.

Moreover, you will at some point enjoy a better experience while interacting with them because, by inference of your behavior, they will have worked hard to figure out what might work better for you next time and what might not.

In brief, your favorite digital retailer not only cannot put you in jail; instead, they are actually looking to improve your experience with their content.

The difference between digital analytics and government surveillance comes down to that. Does it not?

The private company cannot jail you. But the government, misusing information it obtained about you could, if it chose to, dispatch any of its hurts your way: the tax collectors, the investigators, the police, perhaps a drone if you really have rubbed someone the wrong way.

Fear of much of the preceding approaches the realm of paranoia - today. But admit it - in the back of your mind, this is exactly why it feels creepy that the government is collecting data. Because of what they might do with it. They're not collecting it to see where to put a traffic light. They're collecting it with the intention of identifying people they might want to put in prison. Of course, it isn't you. But still.

The government needs to quit spying on Americans. It is making it harder to sell cappuccino machines!


Andrew Edwards

Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s. 

In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.

Besides writing a regular column about analytics for ClickZ, Andrew wrote the groundbreaking Dawn of Convergence Analytics report, and authored the book, Digital is Destroying Everything, in 2015.

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