Privacy Backlash

At the German Mobile Monday Summit this week, I was asked to preview MobHappy’s predictions for 2008. Watch this space for the full gamut in due course, but one of them was that a big Buzzword next year would be “Privacy” as people suddenly wake up to what’s actually happening in our world.

To be honest, it’s probably too late in many countries to reverse the trend, if indeed reversing it is desirable and there’s the political will among activists to make it happen.

But one country that seems determined to provoke such a reaction from its citizens is the UK, where the Labour Government, now being led by a haplessly unlucky Gordon Brown lurches between privacy screw-ups and draconian legislation in the name of prevention of terrorism. The one possible silver lining is that Brown isn’t going to last long based on his current performance and maybe his successor will pause for a re-think.

Just in the last week or so, the UK Government has lost several CD’s containing all the personal records, including bank account details of all its citizens with children – a dream for identity thieves for many years to come. The CDs also contain children’s birth dates, meaning that they can probably celebrate these kids’ 18th birthdays by setting up fraudulent credit accounts all over the place. What a nice coming of age present, to have their future credit records wrecked for the foreseeable future.

And in the same breath, Brown wants to crack on with the doomed identity card project. How do they expect people to think that this data will be safe now? Going over-budget and being delayed are both inevitable, even in the unlikely event that the project ever gets successfully implemented at all. But making the data available to all and sundry seems a little extreme as levels of incompetence go.

I was reminded of this theme again in last week’s Spectator Magazine in a review of Ross Clark’s new book “The Road to Southend Pier”. The title comes from the author’s attempt to get from Newmarket (a small market town in the UK) to Southend, a seaside resort about 75 miles away, without being filmed by CCTV camera. The UK has the highest percentage of such cameras in the world – one for every 14 people and 25% of the world’s installed base – so this is much more difficult than it actually seems. He nearly made it, but was filmed at the very end of the pier in Southend.

Of course, most people will compromise privacy in return for something else. In the case of CCTV, people accept them as they lead to better security and safer streets. But with CCTV, this is illusory. A tiny corner shop in East London, run by Mr Suresh Kumar, for example, has been robbed 200 times in 10 years and the break-ins and robberies filmed every time. No one has ever been caught.

Police are apparently reluctant to rely on CCTV evidence as the quality often doesn’t pass their own standards. And even then, 75% of cases that do get as far as court have CCTV evidence ruled as inadmissible. In the Southend Pier case, the author even provided a photo of himself and an exact time of day, but no sure match could be found.

As well as being filmed constantly, for apparently no very good reason, new legislation which is supposed to prevent terrorist outrages, is being introduced. There will be spot checks for passengers on railways who may have their bags scanned. Travellers will be asked for 53 pieces of data when they book non-domestic journeys. New technology is being introduced at airports, which slow everything down and cause massive queues. This is addition to one of the most apparently sophisticated police databases in the world and facial and number plate recognition being widely employed. And the fact that the Government now want to extend the length people can be held without charge to 42 days – when Labour came to power it was 48 hours.

The problem with all this is that it doesn’t make things any safer in the majority of cases. In the UK’s most terrorist outrage, the bombs of 7/7, having identity checks in place wouldn’t have helped at all as the terrorists weren’t trying to disguise who they were, but what their intentions were. Similarly, most of the CCTV cameras we have today were in place then too. So the cynic might be forgiven for suspecting that all this is being introduced to distract the electorate from the real problems they face; from a failing National Health system to a pensions crisis no one wants to discuss or seems about to confront.

But what’s all this got to do with us? The problem is that when a major trend hits society, it doesn’t do it selectively. When we became suddenly green recently, it wasn’t as if say, air travel was bad and car travel was OK – it all gets lumped into the bad bucket, even if most people aren’t prepared to do much personally to stop what they believe is happening.

In the case of privacy, the backlash will encompass everything and that could include marketing activity too.

If you’re anti-advertising, you may think that’s a great thing. Except that without advertising, the “free” model goes away. No search engines, no free news, no free games, no free anything. And even if advertising doesn’t disappear altogether, lack of data about people leads to poorer targeting which means a poorer user experience on the one hand and less effective results leading to less generous subsidies on the other.

In the online world advertising drives the economy and increasingly so in the mobile world too. Privacy activists motivated by the big, understandable political issues of our time, might just threaten the whole digital ecosystem too. It might sound far-fetched, but I think it’s a real threat.

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