Beer and loathing at South by Southwest

Who will watch the watchmen watching the watchmen? Yes, the IPA's digital consultant, Nigel Gwilliam, has once again been let loose in SXSW and Snowden, NSA and advertising are on his mind.

Nigel Gwilliam: IPA's digital consultant returns from Texas with questions
Nigel Gwilliam: IPA's digital consultant returns from Texas with questions

We all compartmentalise our lives. But in my experience, as a nation, Americans are peerless in this regard. Founded by English puritans from the Mayflower in 1620, they retain a prudish streak in their general culture to this day. But then in specifically defined times and places, all bets are off.

Las Vegas, AKA Sin City, is the most obvious geographically specific example of this. Another was the San Fernando Valley, the global capital of the porn industry, until the latter was democratised by the internet.

Before my first visit to South By four years ago I had never encountered a white collar American drinking a weekday beer during daylight. Turns out conferences are another exclusion zone from prim social attitudes towards alcohol. Our friends from across the pond take to it with gusto, and I went native. There is a point to this beyond amateur social anthropology.

Anti-surveillance and managing all our different selves

We present different personas predicated on different information at different times in different contexts. With care, we can manage this ourselves on the classic internet of Facebook logins and centralised Google accounts. But what if organisations are mass collecting virtually all internet-protocol data all the time, and are not deleting it? And as recent exposes’ have uncovered, the NSA and GCHQ have been doing exactly this.

It was this subject and its implications - a problem rather than the utopian tech upside - that took centre stage at SXSW Interactive for the first time. Don’t get me wrong there was still a plethora of talks on mobile UX, wearable computing and embeddables, but they all played second fiddle to the Holy Trinity of the anti-surveillance movement.

I had not seen one remote video feed previously in Austin, but then like buses three came along at once: we had Julian Assange beaming in from London, Edward Snowden via 7 proxies from Russia and former Guardian Journalist Glen Greenwald from Brazil.

Snowden came across best. His key point was that by choosing an offensive approach to cyber-spying rather than defensive, the NSA had significantly weakened internet security in a world where the US & the west have the most to lose from this. By undermining encryption standards and hacking communications companies’ assets, perversely, they have made us their citizens all the more vulnerable to exploitation and invasions of privacy by criminals and foreign governments.

His session, the first public appearance since his whistleblowing, was a call to arms to the tech community to deliver solutions. If you’re unsure of the credibility and motivation of a fugitive hiding out in Russia (that well known oasis of human rights), consider this: Tim Berners-Lee, presenting elsewhere at SXSW was given the honour of the first question read out by the interviewer and preceded by a personal thank you to Snowden. His question asked how Snowden would recommend designing government oversight of spying organisations.

Soon afterwards, on the 25th anniversary of his invention of the Web, Sir Tim called for an Internet Bill of Rights to ‘take the web back into our own hands’. Snowden’s virtual presence at SXSW was reported by CNN and covered in USA Today – so significant was this event content it was bleeding into the national and international news.

The dangers to adland as data encryption ramps up

The advertising industry is in a strange position with regard to this whole issue. Encryption leaders within the large internet players like Google and Yahoo are apparently furious with the NSA pulling the wool over their eyes. They have made huge strides in the last six months to improve encryption, but their data-led, advertising business models make full encryption much more complicated.

In comparison to spy organisations, our industry’s data collection activities are orders of magnitude less invasive. Does this reflect well on the ad industry or will the nuance be lost and will we simply be tarred with the same broad privacy brush?

The goal of these activists is to make bulk surveillance too expensive via encryption tools. These do already exist, but are too obtuse for the average internet user. The call was for the big internet players and start-ups to deliver user friendly versions of secure networks such as Tor.

There are many ironies surrounding Tor. It was originally funded by the US Naval Research Laboratory and it is now very popular with organised crime. Clearly this would have a major impact on advertising data.

It’s not difficult to imagine Google being outpaced by a start-up less addicted to vast ad revenue in delivering user friendly, secure internet access – but perhaps they would just buy them. That aside, as we listened to the Eric Schmidt describe Google’s commitment to protecting us from the NSA, I pondered who will watch the watchmen watching the watchmen.

Nigel Gwilliam is digital consultant at the IPA. Twitter @NigelG

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