For your eyes only: Is privacy dead, or about to reawaken?

The Ashley Madison hack, government snooping, advertisers keeping track of our every move… is privacy finally dead?

The privacy debate has been raging since the mass-adoption of the internet as big businesses, government surveillance departments and some of the internet’s ‘bad actors’ have learned how to ‘harness’ its power.

In most cases this involves harvesting the details of internet users, which they freely or unwittingly give up, either by using the information gleaned from these ‘data donations’ to target online ads, or using it to build up vast intelligence networks. And in the cases of hackers, exploiting security weaknesses to lift the financial details of oblivious online audiences.

That our personal details are no longer solely our own whenever we exchange them in return for the conveniences offered by online services, is now the default setting among those in the business of online ads. However, concerns among privacy groups and enlightened policymakers are starting to echo in the wider public discourse, posing questions of the model.

Headline hysteria

It’s almost impossible to accurately chart the growing public unease over the erosion of personal privacy in our increasingly connected lives. However, attention-grabbing headlines over data hacks compromising the personal and financial details of individuals means concerns around the issue are at an all-time high.

The most high-profile case is the revelations made by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Ed Snowden, who helped explain the extent of government snooping online causing unrest among many citizen groups.

The Ashley Madison affair

More recently, the lurid ‘Ashley Madison affair’ saw the online security systems of the website, which claims to facilitate those seeking extramarital relations, breached with its subscribers’ details laid bare to the public.

The affair has claimed many casualties, not least for those whose personal details were made public, some of whom are reported to have taken their own lives as a result. Ashley Madison chief executive Noel Birdman has stepped down from his role and the company has been hit with at least four lawsuits at the time of going to press.

The Drum attempted to make contact with Ashley Madison with questions over how it intends to recover from such a devastating blow to its brand equity, but it did not respond in time for publication.

Hacks mean headlines in a data-conscious era

Similarly, Carphone Warehouse customers were also subject to such a breach, this time potentially compromising the details of 2.4 million customers, including their names, addresses, bank details and dates of birth, prompting public outcry.

A common theme among the vociferous social media attacks directed towards the company was over its perceived ineptitude over how it can protect its customers’ details, although the mobile communications outfit was keen to reassure the public of its efforts to address the issue. However, it declined to make an on-record comment when contacted by The Drum.

While the above two cases may be cited as pure-play IT security issues, evidence also points to growing unease among the public over advertisers’ use of data, and regulators are starting to take note.

How advertisers’ use of data can freak out the public

In the instances of such data security breaches, the UK’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), must be contacted when the public’s right to data security has been breached, with the European Commission poised to insist upon firmer guidelines across the continent.

An ICO spokeswoman explained to The Drum: “We offer a range of guidance and services to help businesses comply with the Data Protection Act. This includes online information, and a helpline. Businesses should be doing everything they can to keep information safe by investing in consumer privacy online, both in terms of education, increased protection and good practice.”

However, regulations on how businesses can use data to design marketing messages tailored to specific audiences is about to be tightened, with data watchdogs across the EU’s members states submitting their thoughts on how the proposed pan-European directive should dictate policy.

Market observers state the likely result is that the directive will place more restrictions on UK advertisers, compared to current levels, with the eventual outcome expected early next year.

Growing consumer wariness

The extent of regulators’ interest in the inner goings-on of digitally led advertising outfits was unveiled last year when it was decreed that EU citizens could request search engines remove links to personal information that is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.

A subsequent study on how well the legislation was received demonstrated that while just 55 per cent of Britons were actually aware of the ruling in late 2014, 64 per cent of those questioned described it as a ‘human right’.

Similarly, audiences are growing wary of how their personal information is used for advertising purposes. For instance, in 2013 Facebook-owned picture-sharing platform Instagram drew criticism from high-profile users of its own social network, after it made a post indicating that account holders’ images could be used on behalf of third party advertisers.

The move prompted a U-turn, with chief executive Kevin Systrom quick to claim there was a widespread misinterpretation over the privacy policy update. In a post entitled ‘Thank you, and we’re listening’ he wrote: “We’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.”

More recently, Spotify came under fire for a similar alteration of its terms and conditions, with a view to furthering the targeting capabilities it can offer advertisers. So vociferous was the public outcry that Daniel Ek, chief executive of the music streaming service, also penned an apologetic blog post, maintaining there had been “confusion” over the update.

Nathalie Nahai, a psychologist expert in how online audiences interact with companies, notes that services like Ghostery, which lets users see what companies are tracking their online behaviours, plus the growing market for smartphones that are ‘private by design’ such as Silent Circle, indicate the growing erosion of trust.

“Previously consumers were ensconced in the utility and convenience they got in return [for web services], but if you look at things like these and the rise of ad blockers there is growing disillusionment. People are waiting for brands to fail,” she says.

This brings mounting pressure on digital advertisers – both on the buy and sell side – to provide greater transparency on how they mine the details of individuals, plus how well they can protect some of their most intimate of details.

Therefore, the question all players must ask themselves is, are we about to witness a backlash from both the public and regulators? Plus, could such a move prompt the transition from an age of ‘big data’ and analytics to one of austerity of audience insights?

This feature is also published in The Drum's 30 September issue.

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Ronan Shields

I'm the digital editor at The Drum, and cover adtech and martech. Prefer news and analysis, over opinion pieces. Current fascination(s) are blockchain and media futures trading; also curious about transhumanism on a personal basis. NYC-based, but really London Irish.

All by Ronan