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“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

December 28, 2013 1 comment

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.

Can great creative work save the finance sector?

September 28, 2012 2 comments

“Marketing has always combined facts and judgement: after all, there’s no analytic approach than can single-handedly tell you when you have a great piece of creative work.”

– McKinsey & Co., Measuring Marketing’s Worth

Capitalism has come in for a bit of a knocking of late. Recently, the Futures Company found that 86% thought “big business” maximised profits at the expense of customers and communities (not helped by another recent poll stating 51% of top financial services executives think businesses should just be about making money). The antipathy is not a recent phenomenon and hardly one confined to the fringe. John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas framed modern macroeconomics, said capitalism is “not virtuous [and] doesn’t deliver the goods”. And while there was a short period when such sentiment was only to be found in places like Pyongyang, these feelings are now more pervasive, particularly against the driving force of capitalism, the finance sector. Can marketing help shift perceptions?

From the outside looking in, it would be difficult to say that some of the wounds are not self-inflicted. Multiple fiascos have led to much head-shaking and hand-wringing within the industry. The furore has ceased to abate as politicians score cheap points for fingering the blame on bankers, and lionised institutions like Goldman Sachs suffer massive public relations disasters (including a part ownership stake in a prostitution ring). The manipulation of the LIBOR scheme and subsequent reforms reveal no quick end in sight to a period of immense negative exposure that began with the global recession four years ago.

So the image of finance is indisputably tarnished right now. Marketers are trying to change this, in different ways. Many Western financial institutions have been around for a while; the symbolism of such longevity can serve as a valuable asset for brands. Coincidentally, this year sees Citigroup – while dealing with its turbulent present – celebrate its 200th anniversary. They’ve had a broad above-the-line campaign celebrating their place in history, putting their relative achievements – helping fund the building of the Panama Canal – alongside other important moments in time. Citi also have their eye on the future too, making a concerted push in areas of sustainability, recently managing to become the first bank to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for 200 projects from the U.S. Green Building Council. The question is whether leveraging history and sustainability – both of which arguably convey a sense of trusted consistency, rather than reckless risk-taking – with advertising can help address a serious deficit in consumer affinity for the finance sector. Does it even matter? If we assume banker-bashing is an irrational emotion, and the whole sector is tarnished with the same brush, how much sway does it have over the rational part of our brain that must decide where and how to invest our money?

Several banking brands rely on the prestige of their historical affiliations, and have found themselves no safer from customer ire. It can be hard to seek engaging differentiation in a commoditised industry where the power of switching costs can a play a strong role. A PwC report from July summarises, “Many consumers remain loyal due simply to the absence of a negative because it is often easier to put up with something that is less than perfect than go to the trouble, and potential expense, of switching”. So what else can be done to wake potential customers from this inertia?

It’s interesting to see Morgan Stanley take a decidedly more personal tack, with a new campaign, “What If?”. Shifting focus away from the company as a faceless monolith, the WSJ said the aim is to make the company seem “like your neighborly [sic] stock picker”. The creative itself is beautiful, showcasing professional types with aspects of business and social responsibility framing their translucent faces. It attempts to convey a personalised and considerate attitude that includes but also goes beyond profit-making. It broadly taps into themes in a new book. “Positive Linking”, by Paul Ormerod, sets out to dismiss the outdated notion that people are driven by personal, “rational utility maximisation” and instead claims they are more interested in aiding the network to which they belong, realising this will help them too. This in essence is a slightly less selfish form of capitalism.

“I owe the public nothing”, J.P. Morgan was once quoted as saying. Have times changed much since? The problems with the world of finance are too numerous for this article. The crisis of confidence has begun to have an effect on recruiting, as MBA graduates turn their learned eyes to more reputable sectors. Although it may not seem like it now, customer perceptions of brands within this sector are malleable. Any one that can position itself as an outlier in what is currently seen as a pernicious industry will have much to gain. The tail cannot wag the dog though. If these businesses are to change, they must back up their ambitions with operational changes that reduce risk and ensure profits sit alongside dedication to the broader lifestyle their advertising evinces.