Transparency: it's like confusopoly, but for privacy
(See you at VRM Day 2014.)
"Transparency" seems to be the first thing that people come up with when they start thinking about surveillance marketing. If companies that track people can just be "transparent" about what they're doing, the users can decide whether or not to participate!
This doesn't seem like a problem to people in the surveillance marketing business, since it doesn't impose any extra work on them. They're already thinking about surveillance marketing, because it's their job. But for normal people there are only so many hours in the day. How long will a user really spend trying to comprehend a "transparent" explanation of a tracking device on a web site, or in a store, where he or she only spends a few minutes? It's the confusopoly principle applied to privacy.
Jonathan Levitt, in "In-Store Cell Phone Tracking Pits Consumers Against Retailers", writes:
Industry research shows that consumers overwhelmingly reject cell phone tracking. In a recent OpinionLab study of 1,042 consumers, 77.0% said that in-store cell phone tracking was unacceptable, and 81.0% said that they didn't trust retailers to keep their data private and secure.
Users are already explaining their privacy norms. "Transparency" is a euphemism for communicating about how a company chooses not to comply with those norms.
Omer Tene and Jules Polonetsky explain "creepy" technology:
Notoriously difficult to define, “privacy” has been conceptualized as a “right to be left alone” or a “right to informational self determination.” Good luck operationalizing these concepts in a business environment. Creepiness is more visceral—a gut feeling that arises on the verge of a privacy fail—and may be easier to discern.
That creeped out feeling is not just a reaction to the unfamiliar that will go away. Creepy is how we feel about information asymmetry. When you're interacting with someone who knows more about you than you do about him or her, you feel "creeped out" as a healthy warning, even if there's no technology involved.
The solution to creepy isn't transparency, which is impossibly time-consuming even if people wanted to spend time on it. The solution is to fix the underlying information imbalance using privacy tools. Marketing is bringing technology to a privacy fight, so users are bringing technology of their own, starting with browser add-ons such as Disconnect.
Privacy technology? Doesn't that break online advertising?
Privacy is a problem for advertising if you make the mistake of assuming that online advertising must involve information asymmetry and creepiness. Advertising doesn't have to threaten freedom. As online advertising becomes more privacy-compatible, matched to content not individual user, it will actually work better—more like a magazine ad, less like email spam.
Ideally, technology would implement privacy norms, not try to change them unilaterally. Realistically though, much of the technology that people interact with is going to be working for the surveillance marketing complex, so we're going to need some technology on our side. Technical filtering measures are better than the alternatives: transparency and legislation. Transparency is an impractical time-suck; legislation and regulation move too slowly and get captured anyway.
The Microsoft Scroogled campaign didn't actually have any privacy tech behind it and quietly failed. But platforms that give up on the surveillance marketing bubble will have a ready-made Unique Selling Proposition based on privacy.
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