21st century netizens are gradually becoming more aware of the need to evade digital tracking technologies.

The number of people concerned about online privacy jumped 24% from GlobalWebIndex Wave 3 (Sep 2010) to Wave 8 (Jan 2013). And in the vast majority of markets, more than 1 in 10 people are now aware that the internet poses a threat to personal privacy:

(Source: GlobalWebIndex – GWI.8 – Q4 2012)

What does this mean for marketing, and how we should behave at the corporate level to respect individual privacy while maintaining a drive towards greater targeting and ROI?

In the first of two posts, I’ll explore the global narrative of online privacy. Next week I’ll consider some of the challenges facing big data – a ‘silver bullet’ for some – and how a suite of consumer insight resources is fundamental to building an accurate view of your target audience.

So, where are we with online privacy?

Last week, TechInAsia published a story on China Unicom. The mobile network operator announced that it will, for the first time, offer a tool for its customers to interrogate the data it holds on them.

The post, first published in Simplified Chinese on Sina Tech – and addressed to Chinese residents – advises readers to get a VPN, if they’re not already using one, in the hope of evading state- and corporate-level surveillance.

In the EU, ISPs and MNOs have for some time been compelled by law to keep usage data on their customers for a given time period. In the US, similar legislation requires service providers retain data on individuals, although a little less invasively due to federal privacy law. However, no matter where you live in the world, it is likely that your browsing habits, calls and location data are being tracked to some extent by private organisations.

Governments have access to this data, and it can also be shared with third-party companies.

Importantly, there isn’t a service in the world that enables consumers to identify every single organisation that holds personally identifiable information (PII) about them. You may give your phone number to a site or service, and tick the box allowing them to share data with “selected third-parties”. But how could you ever audit every offline and online database in the world, to understand who has your information? There’s no audit trail that can feasibly be examined by an individual.

For global citizens in the 21st century, this is of huge significance. You are being tracked, by law, and have little control over the flow of information relating to you. Hashing and salting may make your PII more secure, but businesses are continuously passing encrypted information between each other in order to better profile their audiences.

GWI data shows that netizens are aware of the potential threat posed by their digital footprint. But are they able to articulate why they’re concerned?

To explore this aspect a little further, we created a small online focus group comprised of 50 internet users in the UK and asked them what they were worried about with respect to online privacy. To all those who agreed that they were concerned about being tracked, we asked them why. Here are the options we gave them:

  • I’m concerned about targeted advertising
  • I’m concerned the government is tracking my activity online
  • I’m concerned about my location data being online
  • I’m worried about identity fraud
  • I’m worried I might be hacked
  • I’m worried about my credit card details being compromised
  • I’m worried about how companies may pass information between each other

And here’s how those statements rank, with number 1 being the aspect most consumers in the (small, UK-only) sample are concerned about:

  1. I’m worried about identity fraud
  2. I’m worried about my credit card details being compromised
  3. I’m worried about how companies may pass information between each other
  4. I’m concerned about my location data being online
  5. I’m worried I might be hacked
  6. I’m concerned about targeted advertising
  7. I’m concerned the government is tracking my activity online

Mozilla made a surprise announcement ahead of the annual IAB conference in Arizona, which rattled the ad industry: users of the next iteration of Firefox would have Do Not Track enabled by default, joining efforts by Apple and Microsoft to protect consumers from third-party cookies. The above would suggest it’s not really advertising that people want protecting from. There are many other reasons to go incognito.

Regardless, the move hardly spells doom for the ad industry – innovation will prevail over any Do Not Track technology. And there’s nothing wrong with targeted advertising in principle. There are other iniquitous commercial use cases though, such as price manipulation on websites that believe they can increase profits by charging different amounts to different customers based on past behaviours and 3rd party data. While not necessarily a fundamental imposition on free market economics, that does seem to be a tactic that naturally rankles.

And what about the impact of governments tracking the behaviour of citizens? Last year, German politician Malte Spitz suggested that, with the wealth of data available on individuals, the Berlin Wall would never have fallen in today’s connected landscape. The Stasi would have found it too easy to track and incarcerate the ring leaders.

The Sina Tech post, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t go into the dangers of states and corporations tracking individuals. But the article makes up part of a larger narrative that is gradually educating consumers about why they should take privacy seriously, rather than simply knowing that it’s better to take control than float along and hand out data without considering the consequences.

The article ends with a warning: “Consider this news a reminder that, wherever you are, you really ought to get a VPN.”

And herein lies a key theme about big data: consumers will gradually take more control of their digital footprint and try to outmanoeuvre governments and companies. The Berlin Wall may never have fallen in today’s connected world, but the Arab Spring could never have happened without social media. In the privacy battle between citizen and state, there will be an explosion of ingenuity from consumers that wish to go incognito – in addition to a greater appreciation of the dangers of user-level tracking.

Read Part 2 >>

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