Are innovation and privacy really opposed?

Reading the Information Commisioner’s Office’s (ICO) excellent report into ad tech and real-time bidding, I was struck by the closing lines of the foreword by information commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

She writes: “The rules that protect people’s personal data must be followed. Companies do not need to choose between innovation and privacy.”

When I reflect on news stories that have caught my eye over the past few months, this balance of innovation and privacy crops up time and again.

Quartz journalist Mary Hui recently detailed the reluctance of Hong Kong protesters to use their Octopus travel cards when making their way to the widely reported demonstrations against a controversial proposed extradition bill. These protesters used paper ticket machines usually ignored by the majority of residents, apparently confident that a paper ticket ironically wouldn’t leave the potentially incriminating ‘paper trail’ that their personal cards might.

Intrusive technology

Around the same time, Amazon confirmed it keeps transcripts and recordings made by its Alexa voice assistant indefinitely, removing them only if users choose to manually delete them.

On the same topic of voice, you don’t have to spend long on social media before you spot somebody highlighting a perceived correlation between a conversation they have had with a friend (with their smartphone in proximity) and the ads with which they have subsequently been targeted.

There’s nothing to say this is more than coincidence, but some people seem very suspicious of who might be ‘listening in’.

Facial recognition is another one. As thousands of us use FaceApp and its AI to age ourselves for the amusement of our followers, there are warnings being issued about the app’s privacy provisions.

In a Twitter thread, @PrivacyMatters wrote that its terms of service (ToS) and privacy policy “were not easy to detect on the main #FaceApp site, though the app landing page did take you straight to the less than satisfactory privacy policy”.

The thread continues: “The absence of a direct link to the ToS meant many important matters stayed hidden,” and “It’s clear that the images you upload remain on the company’s servers. What isn’t clear is for how long.”

Live facial recognition (LFR) is even more of a quandary. South Wales Police and the Met Police have been trialling LFR tech to monitor public spaces, something the ICO refers to as “a potential threat to privacy that should concern us all“.

Without continuing with my list, it’s obvious innovation and privacy currently have a deeply troubled relationship. Just look at two of the findings in the ICO’s real-time bidding report I mentioned earlier:

  1. “Processing of non-special category data is taking place unlawfully at the point of collection due to the perception that legitimate interests can be used for placing and/or reading a cookie or other technology (rather than obtaining the consent Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations requires).”
  2. “Any processing of special category data is taking place unlawfully as explicit consent is not being collected (and no other condition applies). In general, processing such data requires more protection as it brings an increased potential for harm to individuals.”

The RTB ecosystem seems to need fundamental change.

The debate grows louder

In some cases it may be that companies are compromising privacy in favour of innovation; in other cases it may be the consumer, with eyes wide open, decides to take the reward over the risk (and repent at their leisure).

This debate isn’t new – we’ve been giving data to companies like Google and Facebook for a few years now, in return for useful or enjoyable functionality. If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. The same was said of TV, when some people were distrustful of this way to target the masses (albeit in a contextual way without harvesting personal data).

Amazon even arguably put a price on customer data in July, offering shoppers $10 off their next order if they installed the Amazon Assistant web browser extension, which shares web activity with the retail giant.

What’s my takeaway for marketers among all this? Well, I agree with Denham: innovation and privacy is not an either/or. But that’s because for all the precision that RTB targeting affords, the best advertising and marketing will always be about simplicity and universality.

Even with the ICO doing admirable work and dishing out hefty GDPR fines – British Airways and Marriott being the first two examples – privacy fears will continue, and marketers could do worse than rediscovering just how innovative mass media and great creative can be.

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