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Privacy, Marketing and the NSA

The dominant business model for online consumer services leaves little room for privacy.

Targeted advertising has always been the holy grail of marketing: deliver the right message, to the right audience, at the right time, in the right context.

Since its early steps, the Internet gave marketeers the tools to target audiences like never before. From website banners, to email newsletters, to social networks, the Internet offers unparalleled targeting options. Thanks to the Internet, marketing and advertising has moved, or is in the process of moving, from stats to facts.Why broadcast to a population segment of married,male, 30-40 to reach young dads, when you know who has a 2-year old daughter? Or why offer a generic discount, when you know exactly what’s in my groceries list?

This kind of communication requires data. Lots of data. Data about who we are, what we like, where we live, our habits, our jobs, our relationships, our tastes —both historical and real-time data. The more the better. The more connected even better.

The Internet has shaped modern marketing, but marketing, with its growing appetite for data and its dollars, has shaped the Internet, too.

Just consider two of the largest (if not the largest) success stories of the Internet era, Google and Facebook. They both depend on an ad driven revenue model —and so does the vast majority of content creators and online consumer services.

Also, we, the users, have been accustomed to using great services for “free” —reliable, feature-rich, and free, what’s not to like?

For one thing, this kind of ad-driven business models is by definition in conflict with privacy. It requires someone to be in possession of data we would otherwise consider private, or at least not public: where I worked, the sites I visit, if I’m married, single or divorced, if I have kids, if my emails contain specific words or phrases, what I searched for in the last week, who are my friends, what’s their favorite movie, where they live,…

It is usually said that the Internet killed privacy. That there is something, deep in its core architecture, that leaves little room for privacy. As David Pogue put it back in 2011, “the entire appeal of the new age of online services is to broadcast personal information. On purpose. Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places even publicize your current location, so that your friends can track your movements”.

Well, Pogue was right, even if he didn’t mean it this way (and I have no way of telling if he did): it’s not the Internet. We’ve had great privacy tools (like encryption) for years. It’s the ad-driven business model, that’s incompatible with them —a model that depends on centralised data collection, aggregation and repurposing.

Throughout our life, we have shared most of our secrets with someone: doctors, friends, family, colleagues or even strangers: a secret love affair, a health problem, the fact lately we come back home very late at night, where we spent the night, the thoughts of moving to a new job.

Privacy was rarely binary. Even the deepest secrets can be revealed. It has always been about the cost of getting to the information —calculated in time, money, resources, political capital, risk of braking the law or betraying trust, depending on the occasion. Even if it’s not usually described like this, the current ad-supported business model of most online services is to dramatically lower this cost.

Don’t get me wrong. I love marketing and I’m always fascinated by new marketing opportunities offered by technology —after all, I spent the last 13 years in marketing in one way or another. On the other hand, if we value our privacy, we should be looking for alternatives to the ad-supported online service model.

The outbreak caused by the recent revelations about the NSA’s surveillance apparatus is more than justified. But until we start showing preference to services that protect our data (by encryption, decentralisation, and business models that don’t depend on knowing as much as possible about us), our private data will be a sitting duck for anyone interested in it —be it a government, or a villain.


This article was originally published on Medium. If you feel like commenting, you can do it there.