Claire Beale: How NI Put Privacy On The Advertising Agenda

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Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign
Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign

My friend Jake was disturbed when he first heard about the phone hacking story a couple of weeks ago. He found the idea that someone could listen in to his voicemail messages amazing. And worrying. I concluded he had something to hide.

Don’t we all. Jake doesn’t like the idea that someone might know where he’s been, what he’s been doing, who he’s been with. And for consumers already jittery about issues of privacy in a digital world, events at News International will only underline the threat of invasion.

Few of us are ever likely to be fodder for scandal-seeking journalists, though it’s worth remembering the honey trap News of the World set for a senior adman a few years ago that exposed him as a sugar daddy using the web to meet young women.

But we know now that should anyone care to look, it’s clear how much they can find. This is not about exposure in the red-tops (one necessary outcome from the whole NI scandal is more ethical journalism, where exposure must be justifiably in the public interest). It’s about the swell of concern among consumers that too many people know too much about them.

The alleged hacking of the phones of ordinary people, not just celebrities, will exacerbate anxiety about the gathering, storage and use of information about us all. MPs have already been agitating on consumers’ behalf about this, even before the phone-hacking story put privacy at the top of the media agenda.

Earlier this month, MPs from across the three main parties tabled a motion demanding tougher powers for the Information Commissioner and an internet bill of rights; Google and WPP were cited for their collation of profile information on internet users.

The new European ePrivacy Directive is designed to ensure that we have a clear understanding of what information digital companies hold on us and how it’s used. But it’s an opt-out system, and one that needs to be extremely prominent if it’s going to reassure everyone that we’re not heading for a Big Brother world.

By mid-2012, most online advertisers collecting data or using it for behavioural targeting will have to flag a new icon alerting consumers to the practice. But brands need to be thinking carefully about the issues now if they want to avoid a wholesale backlash and Draconian clampdown. The use of personal information is an incredibly sensitive area. Nobody – consumers, politicians or the media – is in any mood right now to tolerate abuse of personal data.

One final word on privacy. This is not a concern that will diminish as the social media generation takes over. Privacy is a concern for grown-ups with responsibilities and reputations to protect. And it is a concern that today’s teenagers happily baring all on social media will feel soon enough. Advertisers must respect it.

Claire Beale is the editor of Campaign

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