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London's snooping bins: Privacy is not the issue - it's about decency

This week there's been a bit of a hoo-ha about some cyber-snooping garbage cans around London.

Renew's data collecting bins

In case you've not been reading the internet, a company called Renew installed 100 web-connected recycling bins around the city that didn't just collect the detritus of the capital; they also collected mobile phone data. They grabbed the personal identifying number of every passing handset that had Bluetooth enabled. And they used this data to track the movements of passing pedestrians, including how many were return visitors.

Whoopee do. Big deal.

They're not the first company to use data in ways that make people feel uncomfortable. In fact, they're in the rather prestigious company of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yelp, Path, Foursquare, Instagram and the American government.

This kind of news gets the lentil-munchers in an indignant froth. "That's an invasion of our privacy", they'll cry. "You're contravening my human rights".

So on one side we have companies being dicks. And on the other we have the public being dicks.

Let's start with the dickishness of the public.

Dear public, you need to check the facts before you go off on a wobbly. These techie trashcans had no access to your personal data. You were entirely anonymous. Your privacy was never at risk. And this was only a test.

If you got arsey about this but still have a Facebook account, you probably need to take yourself off to a corner and have a stern talk with yourself.

I think your problem is that you're not quite sure why you're uncomfortable about this situation, so you've jumped on the privacy bandwagon. That's not the issue here at all. David Ogilvy once said that "consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say." That's the issue here. The public's words don't match their feelings and their actions don't match their words.

Privacy is not the issue here; it's decency.

Which brings us to the dickitude of companies.

Dear companies, I know this is a legally grey area. This whole data thing is so new there's not much regulation around it. But if you need to rely on the courts to define what you can and cannot do, you've got problems. Your moral compass should tell you what's acceptable. Or maybe the problem is that the thick walls of your office are making your compass point wildly off course.

The issue isn't privacy; it's consent. Let's take a lesson from Chuck Berry. In 1990 he was arrested for having installed a secret video camera in the ladies toilets of his restaurant and allegedly keeping tapes of footage. Any of the 59 women who were awarded damages would probably have struggled to identify their own arse in the footage. But it wasn't about that. It was about the fact it was done behind their back (both metaphorically and literally). Collecting people's data - even anonymously - without their knowledge is the same principle. It's invasive and unwelcome.

Facebook and Google store a massive amount of identifiable data about consumers, yet consumers seem happy to click on the 'accept' button on the interminably long legal agreements. The reason is pretty simple: it's a transaction. They're getting some kind of value out of the exchange. They're getting access to free software, to powerful web-services, to digital jiggery-pokery that other companies charge money for. Their data has become a currency that they use to pay for pixelated products.

And that means they feel diddled if you take it without asking.

Maybe you'd do better by asking what you can give to people rather than what you can get from them. And I'm not talking about pretending that you care by repeating it over and over again in your advertising - I'm talking about actually caring. If you put people first, they'll notice and they'll be willing to offer something that's of value to you in return - be that money, conversation or data.

But if actually having a heart is too much to ask, just try this one simple piece of advice: don't be a dick.

Dave Birss is a contributing editor to The Drum and the founder of Additive, the inspiration and training company. He is a former creative director of Poke, OgilvyOne and McCann Worldgroup

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Dave Birss

I used to be an advertising Creative Director. Now I'm on a mission to demystify creativity. I do that by writing, speaking, broadcasting and consulting.

I was the writer, director and presenter of The Day Before Tomorrow - which you can find here: /daybeforetomorrow

I also wrote and presented the VR history documentary Secret Spaces, which you can find here: http://secretspaces.tv

I'm the author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind.

I'm the founder of OneDayCodeSchool.com

And I'm the Editor at Large of The Drum. So you'll occasionally find my face on this site.

All by Dave