The Only Story That Mattered in 2013

china-computer-spyAnd it will likely be bigger and possibly more troubling in 2014. The biggest story of 2013 can be summed up in just three letters: N.S.A.

Since June of 2013, when the functionary Snowden released documents detailing what a federal judge recently called a “near Orwellian” data collection and surveillance program, nothing has been the same. Not in digital, not in politics, not culturally — and certainly not in analytics.

Those who know analytics know this story is about analytics.

We’ve been in the data collection business for years. And we’ve been analyzing online data since the first log file scrolled across a green cathode ray tube somewhere in a research center.

We’ve fought off the mossbacks who wanted to say that digital marketers had to work with blindfolds on because when people were accessing their online assets, the visitors had a right to do so invisibly. We’ve grown the Internet and now mobile, because they are the trackable form of advertising. We know that over time, the ordinary individual will nearly always trade convenience for privacy, within limits (being tracked anonymously by marketers is usually regarded as harmless by pretty much everyone who has an opinion on it).

We created the notion of opt-in and inbound marketing, which give visitors something of value for something of value: a download for a contact name, for instance. We’ve built opt-out into nearly every email marketing campaign in the civilized world; and those not complying with opt-out protocols are branded spammers and worse.

In a sign this story is only going to heat up for 2014, it was just yesterday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Obama that the NSA reminded her of the notorious East German police, Stasi. A more stinging reference can hardly be imagined. Stasi was one of the worst police enforcers behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Some will say she’s just annoyed her phone got tapped, but still… it can’t be good for the image of our nation, or our nation’s companies, abroad.

And for marketers, strictly speaking, this is what probably hurts most (if you can get past the notion of “Orwellian” and “United States” being used in the same sentence). For it’s not just the reputation of the spymasters that has been hurt; it’s been the reputations of the the biggest names in American digital. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, AOL, The New York Times, and a certain gadfly that filed the right lawsuit at the right time (hence the federal decision about the NSA) have all come out vociferously against the program.

The program has made them unwilling (they say) participants in a massive data collection scheme. They say it hurts their credibility and detracts from their ability to gather data legitimately for marketing purposes. They’re right.

Most people the world over do not share the digital marketer’s belief that data collection for marketing is fundamentally different than data collection for spying by the government. They don’t know enough to make the distinction; and typically, they have no reason to care. Americans care least about this but they do care. Overseas, it’s a much more pronounced matter; and the competitiveness of American digital companies is in all likelihood hampered by the behavior of the NSA. And it isn’t just digital companies being affected. Brazil, in an apparent snub related to surveillance issues, recently chose European Saab over US Boeing in the purchase of several billion dollars worth of jets.

Many users both in the US and off shore will want tracking blocked entirely because they can’t figure out nor do they want to spend the time to parse the difference between who is tracking whom. And this comes at a time when digital marketers are hoping to make ever greater pushes into mobile, location-based advertising, contextual advertising, authentication and device mapping. It’s all in the name of targeting goods to people who stand a better chance of wanting those goods and really it’s no worse than a sign that says “Eat at Joe’s” because Joe thinks you might be hungry just as your are passing his burger joint.

Snowden’s revelations changed the game for Obama, for data collection, for the reputation of “the web” as a place where you’d be relatively untroubled, for analytics, for America’s already battered reputation around the world, for the reputations of many of the most famous American companies; certainly for all of us in digital analytics.

In fact, some of us a quite aghast that the tools we’ve been building for marketers have spawned evil twin and triplets inside cryptic agencies that are watching everything, all the time. Even gamers are not immune. In their fantasy-worlds, real-world spies are hanging out looking for terrorists. They have not found any (which is a little surprising, I must admit!).

Can we change the world back again? Never.

But we can hope the recent decision from the federal bench begins to delegitimize the digital dragnet; that it lets us get back to the business of trying to help marketers market in a digital world, minus the chill of black ops in our browser.

We will know much more in 2014.

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