Q: How many NSA spies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: At least a hundred thousand; one to twist the bulb and the rest to monitor everything that person and everyone they know have done online since 2004.
Gone are the days when the worst a privacy zealot could shout (petulantly) about was the fact that ad targeting was like “Microsoft putting a billboard on your front lawn,” to paraphrase the soon-to-retire Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. It was easy to put the kibosh on this kind of argument.
Privacy, yes. Invisibility, no.
The refutation went something like this:
When you’re cruising the good old Information Superhighway (the one “Al Gore invented”), you’re traveling outside the confines of your own front yard. You’re going to places owned by other people or other businesses. You’re pulling stuff off their servers. No one forced you to go there. You went there on your own. And just as if you were visiting a shop and the shopkeeper got to know whether you liked Bufferin or Excedrin, in the more sophisticated digital environment, the behavior you exhibited began to create a “persona” that reflected your apparent tastes and affinities. So it should come as no surprise at all when marketers, who think they have something you might be interested in, start putting ads before you (in your browser) that might entice you to buy. The horror!
Of course, the most advanced digital marketers have known all along that Bed Bath & Beyond wasn’t the only outfit interested in what you did in the privacy of your own home (no knock on BB&B). But for nearly everyone else, the Age of Innocence was shattered when a certain Snowden individual (perhaps it’s fitting he shares a name with a character in Catch-22) revealed that the NSA was tapping into the internet to penetrate the privacy of pretty much everyone, pretty much all the time.
The fact he was a low-level contractor (one of thousands) working at a private company — and that he had enough security clearance to be able to type in random stuff on his computer and come up with random data about pretty much anyone — made it only more chilling for those who understand the mechanisms of police states. It’s bad enough that someone very qualified and very scrupulous might be scanning your emails and phone calls. It’s far worse to know that any of a horde of back-benchers might decide to mine your data and do who-knows-what with it.
This news can have few fans outside of the security state. They will claim it’s all done to thwart terrorism. Ben Franklin would have disagreed: “Those who give up liberty in pursuit of security deserve neither.” Publishers can’t stand it, because it impinges on their freedom of speech. Internet Service Providers hate it because it makes them into compliant conduits of private data they had previously promised never to reveal to anyone.
The Business of America Used to be Business, But Now It’s Security
Now, apparently, Cisco hates it too. They just had a no good, terrible, very bad quarter because of a serious drop-off in orders from abroad, according to an article in qz.com. Cisco had projected to grow its overseas orders by 6 percent. Instead, in Brazil for instance, they dropped 25 percent. Cisco has made statements that seem to attribute this either to fear amongst foreign corporations that American companies are too much of a security risk for them to buy products and services from (because, ostensibly, they’re not sure if the American pipes won’t lead right to Langley), or simply in retaliation, based on the sheer anger at having been swindled about America’s commitment to freedom.
Either way, it’s a bad scenario, thanks very much. American companies are getting hurt. Does this mean the terrorists are winning? Isn’t this exactly what they’d have wanted?
Hating on Digital
Digital marketers need to be concerned, as well.
In a recent Piedmont marketing class, the professor showed young marketers how they could use Google, YouTube and Facebook to help market businesses. He might have been surprised when his students told him they really didn’t like the idea, and that social media generally seemed at best a bother and at worst kind of creepy.
Clueless newbies in a backwater? Or is there a backlash in the works?
It could be either of the above.
What’s more important is that if there is a backlash, it’s not just because people may be tiring of tweeting. It’s that the underlying perception of digital analytics has, amongst the polity, taken a nosedive. Even as marketers begin to find Big Data and Hyper Data and microtargeting and campaign attribution and sophisticated modeling and even real actionability now within their grasp, they are coming up against the fear of tracking in general.
Nevermind that there’s no connection between Zappos remembering what height of heel you bought last time and the NSA recording the conversation you had the other night with you-know-who. The perception grows that it’s all just one big bucket of nasty fish and they’d rather someone chucked it back into the drink.
It’s not fair, but in a digital world where perception is reality more than ever, how much does fairness really matter?
Marketers should take a look at what happened to Cisco. They should be worried that the revelations about spying—spying for which both Republicans and Democrats are responsible—are creating an atmosphere of mistrust not only for digital analytics, but for American companies in general.
Perhaps the NSA can set up a superfund to clean up this toxic mess before it swallows the whole neighborhood.
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