I recently gave a presentation on the future of technology in advertising at a digital out-of-home conference. It was quite racy. I divided the presentation into four sections, getting progressively scarier and more legally dubious as
I went. It covered everything from tracking faces and using robotic eyes to recording (and selling) your dreams as video. The room was on fire.
Then came the bucket of water moment. My session was immediately followed by a lawyer explaining what you can actually get away with.
"There’s a bunch of things we could do but don’t – for legal or just plain moral reasons. We bear a great responsibility not to be a dick"
It wasn’t much, at first glance. Even taking a picture of a street scene could infringe the privacy of each of the people captured in the image. My presentation was clearly dependent on society undergoing a seismic decline in moral standards – and lawyers ceasing to exist. But here’s the rub; a lot of the "best" ideas can’t happen because the information we would need or the tactics we would have to employ would get us into trouble – and possibly even reward us with some time in prison.
There’s a fine line between going too far (and being super creepy) and gaining just enough "insight" to make marketing seem like magic. Depending on the desired outcome, it’s pretty easy to go rogue
and hack the information you need out of everyday situations.
But what would this world look like? Could we make Minority Report happen right now if there were no rules? Worryingly, the answer is an unsurprising "yes". Welcome to EvilAd Corp’s playbook…
The advertising writes itself
EvilAd Corp’s first brief is to sell you a new credit card. They would love to know the name of the bank you are currently with. Easy. They can walk up behind you and waft an Android phone (containing the freely available Credit Card Reader NFC app) over your back pocket or purse and instantly gain the name of your issuing bank and credit card number.
In fact, why not just add this functionality to public benches to save hiring a phone wafter. The ad pretty much writes itself after that.
If EvilAd Corp wants to make its ads even more dynamic, it can record your conversation as you walk past an ad unit and use IBM’s Watson API (application program interface) – or Chrome’s built-in speech-to-text feature – to convert your talk to text. It can then look up any ads on its programmatic server with tags that match your conversations.
If EvilAd Corp works for an evil coffee chain (that probably doesn’t pay its tax), it may want to tempt you with a frequent visitor loyalty scheme. No problem. It will just keep a note of all the mobile handsets trying to log on to its cunningly named Free Public Wi-Fi router and note down the ones that appear on consecutive days. Next time it sees your phone approaching, the message "Hey, back again?" kicks in.
If EvilAd Corp wants to sell you car insurance, what better scenario than commuters stuck in a rush-hour traffic jam on the A40? Yes, you in the red Mini. The one with the insurance that expires in three weeks’ time. Who cares that EvilAd Corp is not technically allowed to look up your number plate on the Motor Insurance Database.
Want more? EvilAd Corp’s smart TV apps could listen in and watch you in your home. Bus stops could look up your face using the super-sketchy FindFace app and pretty quickly know your name and anything else you left on Facebook or LinkedIn. And, while we’re at it, EvilAd Corp’s public toilets could sample your… OK, you get the idea.
Even governments are in on it. Google "internet surveillance by country" (ignoring the irony that Google just tracked you) and you’ll see a map of the worst-offending countries rated from "pervasive" to "little or none". Luckily, just off the coast of Europe (labelled "little or none") is an island, shaded pink and labelled "pervasive". It’s even listed under "current enemies of the internet" alongside China and North Korea. Sounds like an ideal base for EvilAd Corp. Welcome to Great Britain.
The point is, it’s in our culture now. It surrounds us. There’s a bunch of things we could do but don’t – for legal or for just plain moral reasons. Europe has some of the strictest regulations in the world when it comes to an individual’s privacy and it all applies to advertising. We are all part of possibly the most ubiquitous, pervasive and invasive form of media that the public sees and we bear a great responsibility to "not be a dick" or spook the horses.
There was one last presenter at the conference. Phil Lenger from Show+Tell. His vision of the future was beautiful – to one day overhear someone say: "I like coming here to watch the displays." Well said.
Dino Burbidge is director, technology and innovation at WCRS