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Has Volkswagen fallen foul of the 'sinister' side of tech?

Matthew Charlton is the CEO of Brothers and Sisters. He was a founder of BETC London, has run agencies in London, Amsterdam and the US and has worked on brands including Johnnie Walker, PlayStation and Sony Ericsson.

Now we've all had our breath literally taken away byVolkswagen’s emissions scandal I remain utterly astonished, staggered and shocked that this has happened.

Well actually, the more I have thought about it the less astonished I am because I fear it’s indicative of a culture that is running out of control in most of the world’s major corporations because it is under the radar. Maybe I will be proved wrong in this instance but I think it’s worth reflecting on.

I would be truly surprised if then chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, was aware of the scandal. No sane head of any company would think this deception and cheating would be anything other than madness. He can’t have known. Instead I wonder if there is something else that has gone wrong.

I worry that this is part of a bigger damaging ethical issue that lives with in tech culture.

From what I understand, the device that allowed Volkswagen’s products to cheat in emissions tests was a software cheat. It was programmed into the cars' computers. So it’s a case of computers win again – tech beats the system.

The rules of tech make for a game without frontiers, but also a game without ethics.

For those who are in the business of using tech to outsmart consumers, the line between ethics and business will surely naturally blur. Look at the debate surrounding ad blockers and ‘ad blocker blockers’, make no mistake – that argument has nothing to do with public interest. The industry is losing perspective.

But back to cars. Cars are big computers on wheels. Who knows what happens to all the data from our engines? Nobody I know. Why not? But it exists and it sure as hell doesn’t belong to the person that actually owns the car.

This is typical of an ongoing sinister game – a huge lack of transparency at best and dark arts at the worst.

So much of a company now relies on tech that you wonder if boardrooms really take it seriously enough. The ability for a sinister approach to live undetected in the technology of a product or marketing department is high, and the casual culture of trying to dupe consumers into giving up their data, of investing in cheap programmatic ads that trick people into click on them, is incredibly unhealthy and it needs to all grind to a halt.

The problem is it could not have come at a worse time for Volkswagen. Consumers have never mistrusted big firms more. Libor fixing, tax avoidance, Tesco over-stating profits, the collapse of banks, Tony Blair on WOMD etc; it’s the latest chapter in what is now the longest-running soap opera of all time.

In parallel, the unlikely rise of Jeremy Corbyn highlights the shifting plates towards an outright rejection of self-regulation and profiteering of major corporations. Volkswagen provides more compelling evidence that businesses see themselves above policy makers who we democratically elected to protect us. Although I suspect that is not true – this doesn’t feel like an act of greed, it feels like a dark micro-culture issue to me.

There is a deep and fundamental trust problem with brands now, and when you stop to think about it, why wouldn’t there be?

I was talking to a friend of mine who works for a major organisation recently who confided in me that their employer’s iPhone app allows them to suck up all the data on their customer’s phone from every app, including Facebook data. Everything. The firm realises that its consumers have no idea about the data it is effectively stealing under false pretense but it still does it because it can’t help but see it as a commercial advantage. It’s frankly insane that this can happen and all these things are going to drive people to hate brands and actively distrust them in future. Does the chief executive of the company know? I bet he doesn’t. And if he knew I can’t believe he would not shut it down immediately.

The greatest oxymoron of our times is this: we have never in the history of the world trusted brands less and yet we have also never in the history of the world given them access to so much valuable personal information.

Every chief executive needs to sit down and really ask the hard questions now about what his or her employees are actually doing.

Brands are going to have to take a powerful stance on tech culture and start giving back data. The price otherwise can be higher than they can imagine.

People are in control now, not brands. Unless the people at the very top start paying serious attention to ethics they will come and they’ll probably get you.

Matthew Charlton is chief executive of Brothers and Sisters. He tweets @MJCharltonesq

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