I don’t want to live in a society that does these sorts of things." This is the declared motivation behind the 29-year-old former CIA employee Edward Snowden’s decision to go public with his allegations about mass-surveillance programmes in the US – turning the US government from a perceived "model of human rights" to an "eavesdropper on personal privacy".
Snowden (pictured) has been accused of treason but, in the eyes of the general public, he’s a hero. More than half of the respondents to a recent YouGov poll said he was right to reveal information to the press on how the US government was monitoring phone calls and e-mails.
There is similar distrust towards the UK government, evidenced by the public reaction to its data communications bill. Dubbed the "snooper’s charter", it would have given the police and security services access, without a warrant, to details of all online communications in the UK, as well as access to all Britons’ web browsing history and social media records. Extreme opposition led it to being shelved but, in the wake of the latest terrorist attack in Woolwich, it has since found its way back into national debate.
With US authorities accused of mining user data on the likes of Facebook, Google and Yahoo! without restriction, and the UK government behind a "snooper’s charter", it begs the question: if government is not trusted in this area, how can brands be expected to be?
There is growing unease over control of personal data. In Europe, an initiative enabling people to delete their personal details from online service providers, "the right to be forgotten", is being wrangled over. The right was developed in response to complaints about the way social media sites, such as Facebook, retain information. The proposed initiative would give young people who post embarrassing pictures of themselves on social media sites the right to remove them at a later time. Britain is objecting to the initiative on the basis that it will give users unrealistic expectations about the impact the "right to be forgotten" has on the way data spreads and is traded.
So, the issue of data and privacy is at the heart of public debate, and it is a conversation that brands need to be listening to and participating in.
An ethical dilemma
The debate raises all kinds of ethical questions for advertisers. Brands and agencies are understandably keen not to miss out on seizing the opportunities provided by using data in their marketing activity but, if this leads to misuse of customer information, then the brand involved can expect its reputation to be damaged. It is not just about misuse; it is about protection of customer data, having safe and secure systems in place to ensure that data does not make its way into the wrong hands.
At Cannes this year, Sir Martin Sorrell called on Google, Facebook and Yahoo! to shoulder responsibility for the information they gather. In doing so, he voiced the concerns of many in the industry who fear that the protection of individuals’ privacy is not a major concern for technology companies. Seemingly, there is a massive disconnect in brands asking for your data and then explaining what they’re going to do with it and what you are going to get back as a result.
The big loyalty schemes, such as Boots, Nectar and Tesco Clubcard, are simple: the customer knows they are collecting their data so they can provide them with relevant offers and suggestions for products and services. This seems complicit, fair and the customer receives a real-life benefit.
But what about the times you are filling out your data online and you are not necessarily sure about what is going to happen with that data and what actual value it is going to provide you? This is where the mistrust manifests itself and things get messy.
In June, Barclays announced it would start selling information on all of its 13 million customers to other companies, although the data will be aggregated and cannot be attributed at an individual level. In some ways, it’s a shocking statement, but at least they are being open about what they are going to do, which gives customers the option to do something about it – stay in or opt out.
Giving away data has never been easier or more automatic. People spend much of their day online. In the UK, we were online for 13 minutes of every hour last year. Of the 37 billion hours spent online in the UK for the whole of 2012, 22 per cent of that time was on a social network, according to Experian Hitwise. That is an enormous amount of data that is being provided, but I think the distrust comes when you cannot see what value you get back as a result.
The role of brands in the data and privacy debate is to be clear and accountable about what they are doing with data so it keeps the customer in control and able to decide if they want to participate or not. Brands should make the handling of consumer data central to their corporate agenda, placing the same importance on it as their corporate social responsibility and environmental practices. Responsible data protection and privacy measures will be the next stage in CSR, where brands will look to explain what value they are adding by capturing and using your data.
In his speech at Cannes, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth tried to address privacy fears, insisting that user data "is in a place where we trust, which is with us". For brands, that trust is something that cannot be assumed – it has to be earned. The UK Information Commissioner’s office predicted earlier this month that 2013 will be the year that "the commercial imperative of good data handling will be realised". Let’s hope that our industry works towards making that a reality.
The personal touch
I believe we need to move past the idea of using data to provide personalised communications (this should now be the minimum requirement) and move on to using data in more amazing ways: to create personalised products, services and experiences. That should be the expectation and the challenge we need to step up to: merge technology, data and analysis to provide the same level of service that you get when you go to your local shops: where they personally know you, what you like and what you want.
It is clear that the issue of data and privacy is creating a massive level of distrust among the public. We continually hear about how data is being used to serve the needs of others and not the individual. The Prism scandal shows how important our data is, and we should be able to hold those who have our data to account. It is up to us as an industry to understand public concerns and be open and honest about why we collect data, what we use it for and how consumers benefit. At the same time, it is also down to individuals to be more aware of the data we give away and consider what is going to happen to it in more detail.
From there, it is about brands being smarter in their data use. The challenge is to create amazing data-driven products, experiences and services that provide real value – branded utility. If we get that right, the issue of data and privacy will be less negative and we will be able to turn massive distrust into a massive opportunity.
Prashant Yadave is a planner at Karmarama