Digital Analytics in an Age of Spying

Written by Andrew Edwards. Posted in Privacy

snooping Q: How many NSA spies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: At least a hundred thousand; one to twist the bulb and the rest to monitor everything that person and everyone they know have done online since 2004.

Gone are the days when the worst a privacy zealot could shout (petulantly) about was the fact that ad targeting was like “Microsoft putting a billboard on your front lawn,” to paraphrase the soon-to-retire Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. It was easy to put the kibosh on this kind of argument.

Privacy, yes. Invisibility, no.

The refutation went something like this:

When you’re cruising the good old Information Superhighway (the one “Al Gore invented”), you’re traveling outside the confines of your own front yard. You’re going to places owned by other people or other businesses. You’re pulling stuff off their servers. No one forced you to go there. You went there on your own. And just as if you were visiting a shop and the shopkeeper got to know whether you liked Bufferin or Excedrin, in the more sophisticated digital environment, the behavior you exhibited began to create a “persona” that reflected your apparent tastes and affinities. So it should come as no surprise at all when marketers, who think they have something you might be interested in, start putting ads before you (in your browser) that might entice you to buy. The horror!

Dark Lords

Of course, the most advanced digital marketers have known all along that Bed Bath & Beyond wasn’t the only outfit interested in what you did in the privacy of your own home (no knock on BB&B). But for nearly everyone else, the Age of Innocence was shattered when a certain Snowden individual (perhaps it’s fitting he shares a name with a character in Catch-22) revealed that the NSA was tapping into the internet to penetrate the privacy of pretty much everyone, pretty much all the time.

The fact he was a low-level contractor (one of thousands) working at a private company — and that he had enough security clearance to be able to type in random stuff on his computer and come up with random data about pretty much anyone — made it only more chilling for those who understand the mechanisms of police states. It’s bad enough that someone very qualified and very scrupulous might be scanning your emails and phone calls. It’s far worse to know that any of a horde of back-benchers might decide to mine your data and do who-knows-what with it.

This news can have few fans outside of the security state. They will claim it’s all done to thwart terrorism. Ben Franklin would have disagreed: “Those who give up liberty in pursuit of security deserve neither.” Publishers can’t stand it, because it impinges on their freedom of speech. Internet Service Providers hate it because it makes them into compliant conduits of private data they had previously promised never to reveal to anyone.

The Business of America Used to be Business, But Now It’s Security

Now, apparently, Cisco hates it too. They just had a no good, terrible, very bad quarter because of a serious drop-off in orders from abroad, according to an article in qz.com. Cisco had projected to grow its overseas orders by 6 percent. Instead, in Brazil for instance, they dropped 25 percent. Cisco has made statements that seem to attribute this either to fear amongst foreign corporations that American companies are too much of a security risk for them to buy products and services from (because, ostensibly, they’re not sure if the American pipes won’t lead right to Langley), or simply in retaliation, based on the sheer anger at having been swindled about America’s commitment to freedom.

Either way, it’s a bad scenario, thanks very much. American companies are getting hurt. Does this mean the terrorists are winning? Isn’t this exactly what they’d have wanted?

Hating on Digital

Digital marketers need to be concerned, as well.

In a recent Piedmont marketing class, the professor showed young marketers how they could use Google, YouTube and Facebook to help market businesses. He might have been surprised when his students told him they really didn’t like the idea, and that social media generally seemed at best a bother and at worst kind of creepy.

Clueless newbies in a backwater? Or is there a backlash in the works?

It could be either of the above.

What’s more important is that if there is a backlash, it’s not just because people may be tiring of tweeting. It’s that the underlying perception of digital analytics has, amongst the polity, taken a nosedive. Even as marketers begin to find Big Data and Hyper Data and microtargeting and campaign attribution and sophisticated modeling and even real actionability now within their grasp, they are coming up against the fear of tracking in general.

Nevermind that there’s no connection between Zappos remembering what height of heel you bought last time and the NSA recording the conversation you had the other night with you-know-who. The perception grows that it’s all just one big bucket of nasty fish and they’d rather someone chucked it back into the drink.

It’s not fair, but in a digital world where perception is reality more than ever, how much does fairness really matter?

Marketers should take a look at what happened to Cisco. They should be worried that the revelations about spying—spying for which both Republicans and Democrats are responsible—are creating an atmosphere of mistrust not only for digital analytics, but for American companies in general.

Perhaps the NSA can set up a superfund to clean up this toxic mess before it swallows the whole neighborhood.


Digital Analytics Is Not Surveillance

Written by Andrew Edwards. Posted in Privacy

Sometimes you have to take credit for your own foresight.

I am going to do that today.

Referencing the column I published two weeks ago – just days before the phone record and NSA PRISM scandals broke – I said “while privacy may be dead, nobody likes surveillance”; and that “we are one or two scandals away from this becoming a mainstream concern.”

Two days later, it became a mainstream concern with no less fanfare than a NASCAR winner guzzling milk from a big silver trophy.

Just say I had a feeling.

And now marketers have to deal with lots of new questions about “digital tracking.”

First, let me vent.

What the NSA has done is a disgrace to the U.S. Constitution and a subversion of the global Internet. If the terrorists were looking for a damaging result of their outrages, they now have it: the U.S. today spies on all of its citizens just like any number of shabby little despotic regimes. Just as any freedom-hating terrorist might have wished for, we have lowered our expectations about liberty to a position no higher off the ground than a limbo pole at the end of a long night at Sandals.

I am not one of those given to parading across the village green in a tricorn hat brandishing a hateful placard. However, I am a rational observer of history and this is not any kind of change I can believe in.

Our president says it’s all cool. I say: trust the government never to misuse data they have collected about me? Absolutely ridiculous.

And it would be funny if it were not giving me that weightless feeling you get when you first notice you are on a slippery slope.

Digital Marketing’s New Challenge

We all know about the need for actionable analytics (or we are probably not reading this column). Multi -channel, or convergence analytics depends on gathering data about what people do on their digital devices.

For the most part, Americans hadn’t really cared about how much they get tracked while shopping for baby clothes or wine using a digitally connected device. They didn’t care much because, being Americans, they trusted in their sovereign rights as U.S. citizens. Corporations might know all they could about your shopping habits, but the worst they could do was send you the wrong offer. OK, maybe if you were not paying your bills, some marketers or credit companies might put the brakes on your race toward the credit cliff. But that is all.

They could not, except under pain of prosecution for breaking the law, sell your data to a thief, or give your data to any enforcement arm of any branch of government (without the transparent, due process artifact of having been served a warrant generated via publicly accessible channels for cause).

It made for a very easy case against what some would have called “privacy zealots.” It would have gone something like this:

“What do you care if Williams-Sonoma knows that your computer connected with its server to load a page about a cappuccino machine? Do you put on an invisibility cloak when you go to its brick-and-mortar store?”

That was then.

Now we have to regroup, in light of the privacy zealot being able to crow “I told you so” about digital tracking. Because now we know that every search term you entered and every email you ever sent is available to any one of hundreds of thousands of cubicle-dwellers at Booz Allen (and many others) with the right security clearance. They can’t all be paragons of constitutional scholarship. Moreover, they are the outsource destination for a government that now seems to care little for the core document upon which it was founded.

Therefore, as “digital trackers,” we have some explaining to do.

Digital Analytics Is not Surveillance

And here’s why.

Unless and until the brand or retailer or services company whose site you visited is forced to turn over their analytics reports to a government-contractor spy agency, you cannot come to any harm via the data that has been collected about your (usually) anonymous interaction with their content.

Moreover, you will at some point enjoy a better experience while interacting with them because, by inference of your behavior, they will have worked hard to figure out what might work better for you next time and what might not.

In brief, your favorite digital retailer not only cannot put you in jail; instead, they are actually looking to improve your experience with their content.

The difference between digital analytics and government surveillance comes down to that. Does it not?

The private company cannot jail you. But the government, misusing information it obtained about you could, if it chose to, dispatch any of its hurts your way: the tax collectors, the investigators, the police, perhaps a drone if you really have rubbed someone the wrong way.

Fear of much of the preceding approaches the realm of paranoia – today. But admit it – in the back of your mind, this is exactly why it feels creepy that the government is collecting data. Because of what they might do with it. They’re not collecting it to see where to put a traffic light. They’re collecting it with the intention of identifying people they might want to put in prison. Of course, it isn’t you. But still.

The government needs to quit spying on Americans. It is making it harder to sell cappuccino machines!

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