A generation of people have now grown up seemingly constantly broadcasting their lives on Instagram, sharing their innermost thoughts on Twitter, intimate details of life on Facebook and yet the world seems shocked that we’ve lost any sense of privacy. We now live in an age when it seems every Instagram user wants to be an influencer, to be popular and envied and to not have anyone know anything about them.
Ever more apps continuously ask us to share location data, software updates ask us to share our personal details, messaging apps want to scan the most personal communications we can imagine and access our friends lists too. And all in an era where security breaches are common, where nefarious companies seek to sway elections, where our data seems to be used to target us with ads that are designed to be as personal as possible, but never creepy, and yet haunt and chase us in on online lives.
Our homes are now wire tapped, not secretly and against our will, but we pay money and eagerly await delivery of connected smart speakers. We now volunteer all manner of information to Google, our location, photos, our calendar invites, our intentions are known by a global sentient network, more than our own selves.
It’s easy to think this is all a relentless march towards the dreadful future where our personal lives are invaded, where privacy is dead, where we can’t escape the filter bubble, where personalized ads follow us around like Minority Report, with few marketers aware it was a film about a dystopian future, not what should be done.
While we may hate personalization, the only thing we dislike more is irrelevance. We hate it when we phone up credit card companies and they don’t immediately know it’s us. We can’t imagine a world without Google offering us better search results based on our browsing history, we like that our weather is automatically shown in our location. Most people would happily swap mesothelioma class action lawsuit TV ads for a well-made commercial for some trendy new jeans.
The marketing and business world has long tip toed around the edge of the privacy debate. We take as much data as we can, whenever we can, we store it badly and hope to never awake the beast that is the customer. If we were to work around earning data from people, by giving them trust that we will use it wisely, not sell it, keep it massively securely and offer clear value in exchange, then life would be very different.
I’d love to see the world embrace privacy trading. How do we maximize the value offered to people in return for storing limited and intimate data about people in a transparent and trusted manner?
Uber knows that the only way for the app to work is to know where you are precisely and in real-time and we understand that and allow it. We know Google Traffic knows our location but uses it anonymously to process all traffic conditions and we’re fine with the net benefit. Dating apps track our location because sharing that is a small price to pay for life or evening long romance.
I like the thought experience of a post privacy world. Maybe I’m naive but if my airline knew exactly where I was at all times then it would be able to serve me better, to come and find me if I’m in the lounge and keep the plane from leaving without me. If my credit card company knew the same could it stop declining payments because I’m abroad and didn’t tell them? If my TV set knew I was in the market for a new car, new auto insurance and I liked leather manbags, is that a terrible world to live in? What if retailers had my face stored on file and I could pay for things with a smile? What if Uber could access my calendar and offer me cars when I’m running late? What if a hotel company could tell from my voice on phone calls I’m stressed and suggest a spa for me? What if a burger joint could tell I was hungry and not been there and entice me in with a special offer? What if a clothing retailer knew my size?
It’s easy to use the slippery slope argument against this and to assume that we can’t control a precise level of privacy. A company knowing you’ve bought a TV is one thing; knowing your blood test results or genetic code is absolutely another. If health insurers, for example, could ever access some of this information, we’d have absolute mayhem.
Yet the privacy debate is rooted in paranoia. It assumes companies want to know everything and not merely enough and likely in an anonymous way. It assumes advertisers want to build rich personal files and harass customers near endlessly. And given this has been so far how we’ve acted it’s easy to see why.
I’d love a discussion driven less by technology and language like targeting, and one driven by empathy and about serving people better. I’d love to see how we can start the process of asking permission, clear opt ins, clear trust, world class security protocols, and above all else a way to maximize the value exchange over a lifetime for all. Privacy is a recent invention, it’s perhaps the ultimate luxury for the future, but will it matter. Will our kids miss something like privacy, a concept they’ve probably never known.