Privacy is dead, so what?

May 1, 2014

The latest ‘face’ in the ongoing privacy debate, Edward Snowden following his leak of classified NSA documents. Source: Screen capture from the interview with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras on June 6, 2013

There has been a lot of talk in recent times about privacy, with the ongoing saga triggered by Edward Snowden leaking of classified U.S. N.S.A intelligence. Amongst other revelations, this has highlighted that the U.S. intelligence apparatus can (and sometimes does) tap into citizens’ Internet, social media, and telephone communications. There is little doubt, and in fact significant evidence, to suggest that the same is true for many other nations, including Australia, to a greater or lesser degree.

There has been significant media coverage of all of this, but certainly not the coverage you might expect given its implications for almost all citizens connected to the digital world. There have been protests and demonstrations, but are fleeting and expressing mild dissent at best. There have been responses from Government and authorities, although typically a recognition that these capabilities are in place, they will stay in place, but they will be used appropriately (i.e. no change at all)

‘There is nothing new under the sun’, or is there?

This scenario is not new, societies often rail against intrusions to their privacy (albeit almost always unsuccessfully). The general trajectory however is towards reduced privacy, driven by technology’s ability to capture ever increasing depth and breadth of information on the individual. 

The movie 1984 portrayed a future state where Government knew all about the individual and the individual’s rights were diminished as a result – even this somewhat apocalyptic view of Government privacy could not imagine the level of oversight that Government and organisations have.

Take my good self as an example. From the moment I woke up, I was able to be tracked via my mobile phone and my activities monitored as I checked my emails and jumped online to read the news. My phone’s GPS kept tabs on me during my walk to the train station and for that matter every step of every journey I take, every day. The security camera at the train station captured my image, and smart card captured when I jumped on the train, and off again (monitored by security camera during the trip). My coffee and scrambled eggs have been noted by my credit card company and I’ve only hit 9:15am!

The crucial trade off - what do we really care about?

So why are we happy to see our privacy intruded upon to such a degree?

Looking beyond the principle and to the practical, there is an implicit trade off that I, and almost all people make. My life is far more enriched by virtue of me being able to jump online whenever and wherever, use GPS technology to find my way, simply swipe on or off to catch a train and tap a card to pay for breakfast.

Do we know that all this information is ‘out there’, mostly yes. Do we like the fact that all our information is out there, probably not. Do we accept it, yes we do, otherwise we would be switching off tuning out, and seeing a much larger Quaker population that we have today. 1984 forgot to mention the clear benefit to the individual that much of this technology has, in terms of its application to people’s day to day lives.

So, in this context, what is it that people are trying to defend? It appears to be less about keeping all their affairs private and more about keeping their ‘real self’ to themselves and those they want to share it with. People are happy to let others know what they do, what they say, and even what they think, but not their true feelings and motivations behind their actions. Privacy may be dead, however it can be argued that intimacy is the real game, and it is more valued and tightly held than ever.

‘You can see right through my eyes, but can you see through my disguise’

A key example of this in action is in the personas that people adopt on social media. Millions of Australians spend hours of time commenting, liking, uploading, downloading and otherwise engaging on what amounts to a window into their worlds... Or is it? There have been a number of articles written that suggests that people’s activities online are far from a true reflection of their real selves.

Two key areas in which people’s activities diverge from reality are when they:

a) Project the best of themselves online, highlighting the five star restaurant of funky little hipster breakfast joint they went to, not when they burnt they cooked spag bol at home, and

b) React and respond to things that are at either end of the spectrum, very good/ bad, happy/ sad, funny/ tragic, not the middle ground which sets the context for much of people’s lives

It is not that these phenomena are new, and in fact are a continuation of how people behave in any form of social discourse throughout the ages, however it could be argued that this is becoming more pronounced given people’s subconscious recognition they are always ‘on show’ and under the microscope. As more information becomes available about the individual, the more difficult it is to determine the real person behind all of the noise. 

The risk facing the businesses, brands, marketers and insights professionals in particular is that we default to a situation where more information equals greater insight. We can match up behavioural data and what people think and feel online to unlock true insight. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

Clearly we need to go deeper, gaining a level of intimacy with people to understand what they truly think, and the motivations behind all scan data, heat mapping, online buzz and any other number of instantly available but ultimately surface level data sources. 

Our job as insights professionals has in many ways, become much easier to do, yet so much more difficult to do well. The challenge is to be able to deliver true insight beyond the ‘noise’, understanding how people truly feel, what truly motivates them, not simply mining more data in a world drowning in information, but lacking in clear, compelling insight.