Danny Rogers
Danny Rogers
A view from Danny Rogers

There's a fine line between personalised and creepy

Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, makes a fascinating interviewee: partly because, as the head of the world's pre-eminent search engine, he is uniquely powerful; partly because, as an electrical engineering graduate from Princeton, he is exceptionally bright; and partly because he is consistently willing to engage with the media.

On Radio 4’s Start The Week on Monday, he was quizzed not only on Google’s miserly approach to paying tax, but also on myriad ethical and privacy issues that globalised internet advertising has thrown up.

But the Schmidt quote that stuck with me was: "We have a responsibility around your privacy; you have a responsibility as well." He is right, of course. But how much attention do we really give to the latter?

Advertising professionals must keep at the cutting edge of this technology to succeed - but they must be sensitive

Privacy is an issue of growing importance for society. London has more CCTV cameras than almost anywhere in the world. But sometimes we are glad of this – for example, when the authorities (an interesting term in itself) need to track a terrorist or criminal. Equally, the clever new Google Glass potentially enables the wearer to secretly film you and, with facial-recognition software, recognise you and call up relevant data.

We hear every day that effective advertising today is about such data. Brands want to know about their individual customer "in order to deliver tailored, cost-effective advertising" – and Google can help them with this – but is that customer really aware of the potential downside?

Schmidt responds that Google does not use the intelligence it gathers "in any heinous way" and does not give individual data to any third party. And the increasingly advertising-obsessed Facebook takes the same stance. However, the concern arises because many of us aren’t aware of the precise contract into which we enter.

This week, Microsoft filed a patent that will allow its Xbox One to reward viewers for watching ads on the device to prevent people skipping ad breaks. The suggestion is that a camera within the Xbox tracks the viewer to ensure they are "engaged" with the ads. This is at least a transparent quid pro quo transaction. But that doesn’t stop it being creepy.

Society and culture always tend to lag technological progress and, in today’s world, this is acutely true. Advertising professionals must of course keep at the cutting edge of this technology to succeed – which helps pay Schmidt’s salary – but, equally, they must be sensitive to the effect this has on the average punter; how he or she really feels. We would be unwise to lose the truly personal amid the "personalised".