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Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The reality of privacy

Recently I had the exciting opportunity to meet Retired General Hayden, the former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was discussing some of the trends he is seeing, as well as, the global developments that are taking place with regards to security. There were a lot of questions from the audience regarding privacy and espionage; whether state/governments or corporations were responsible; in addition to a discussion around understanding the evolution towards cyber security. Ultimately, an interesting discussion, however I left the event asking myself one simple question – “Who is now responsible for our privacy?”
 In the good ole’ days, before the time of the Internet and social media and “cloud services”, we were confident that our governments could and were protecting our privacy, whether that was our home address, phone number, or banking details. All of this information was under strict government policies to ensure a countries citizens were protected.  Of course, in many of these instances, we had to opt in, i.e. to remove our phone number from the directory or to ensure our address didn’t appear in the phone book.  But, it was definitely a simpler time and one in which we felt secure in the geographic boundaries that our country protected.
 Fast forward back to today and oh how the world has changed. Our home phone and home address have become the least of our concerns as our online identities are increasingly coming under threat. The knowledge that is available on each of us today is like nothing we have ever seen - your credit card details, your email address, your social media contacts and even what you store in the cloud.  All of this information is now worth much more than our home phone number ever was.
 It is interesting then that the responsibility of our Privacy is moving away from our respective governments and into the hands of local and global corporations.  When we contemplate what that means for each of us we may feel a shiver of fear or doubt, I know I did. Consider for a moment your purchases online or simple sharing of your hobby’s or interests with your friends in social media gatherings… Where does that data go?  Who sees it? Do you use a tablet or smart phone - guess where you’re phone numbers and any personal data is backed up? Certainly your local government has no involvement in the storage and safe keeping of this data.   So, at what point did we start relying on corporations – or in many cases “Over The Top” providers – to ensure our privacy and protect our identities? What do you think happens to that data?  Where does it go?  Who can see it?  What can they do with it?  What will they do with it?  I could go on, but I think you get the point.
 I am not sure about you, but I don’t recall being provided a location as to where all of this information was going, or being assured it was even remaining in my country of origin…  We need to remind ourselves that these are businesses, not governments.  There has been no signing of a memorandum between our governments and these businesses to officially hand over responsibility and accountability for the maintaining of our privacy.  Therefore, there is no assurance that any of our data is not being used to create profiles or not being shared with others – ever heard of people’s photo’s being hijacked for other uses? 
 I recently shared with a group of people the fact that it is easy to find out a whole raft of information about someone’s profile.  They were a little surprised at the ease with which I could get the data and one of them said that is why he doesn’t have an online presence – well at least one that he wasn’t aware of! These online businesses we are now relying on to protect our privacy, are in fact providing some privacy services (some of these we even pay for) however, you will actually find that many of them, in their fine print, inform you they are not responsible for your data and if this information is stolen or “lost” they will attempt to retrieve it but cannot promise anything.
 There have been some interesting cases recently where regulatory bodies have attempted to reign in these businesses, either in terms of how they are using our information, or how they were trying to access more.  But ultimately, what do you do when that business operates on a global scale? Given today’s environment, I am not surprised that we are hearing more and more about governments trying to tap into the Internet to listen and read what is going on. As I am sure you all know, we are really no longer sending letters via post office or making fixed line phone calls, in fact almost everything we use in terms of communications is somehow connected to the Internet.
 Interestingly, one business has recently been talking about the “connectedness of everything”, where we expect there to be some 50 billion devices connected to the “internet” in the next 5-7 years. Consider for a moment, 50 billion devices, which would include your car, refrigerator, TV, home security, washing machine, even our children (this actually happens today where a Sim card, combined with GPS, is used to track a child’s movements).  Do we really think all of this data will simply go onto a storage device in our homes? Of course not! Many of these devices being connected to the Internet will be incredibly useful to us.  Just think about it… knowing what to buy at the supermarket when you have forgotten your list or knowing when your car needs service –without worrying that something might break before you service or repair it. So, with the convenience and help that all of these devices can bring us, the concern still remains - what else would this data be used for?  Where will it go?  Who will see it?  What will they do with it?
 This is where I come back to the original question, who is responsible for our privacy? Well ultimately we are.  We need to ensure we are always checking the policy of the online providers we are using and understand what the fine print means. We need to ensure we are lobbying regulatory bodies and governments to ensure they only issue business licenses for online services to those providing clarity on what our data is used for and more importantly, for those who are intending to share our data that they MUST have an “opt-in” clause so we know what we are getting ourselves into. I don’t know exactly when governments became no longer responsible for our privacy, but ultimately we need to be aware of what we are signing up to and using the Internet for.
 Now some of you will be thinking – ok Nathan, so what are you saying turn off the Internet and resort back to mailing letters and using the landline phone for communication? Not at all! We are already far down the path to an Internet enabled world, and there is not much we can do about that. What I am saying though, is that we need to be aware of the risks, understand what we are signing up for, read the fine print and always think about what we are posting online or sharing with our online communities.  At the end of the day, we are now responsible for how we interact with our online world more so than ever before, and we need to ensure we do not assume that someone will protect our privacy or our governments will come riding in on white horses to save the day.

Our information has moved online and we must define our own individual policies.  We choose how to interact with “the net”.  We protect ourselves.  This is the new reality of privacy.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The Power of one ... It's all about me!

There is an amazing transition of who is defining the internet user experience. The significant influence that content owners, use to have, is now moving towards the average person/user. Everyone is beginning to recognize that they can now choose their own content and services, and with this development, there are implications for an industry you might not have thought of at first– Advertising.
In the past, advertisers love(d) content owners. When there were only a few of them (relatively), they had the unique opportunity to define what content would be viewed by an end user.  Think of the influence they could wield, their ability to track patterns of interest and through the grouping of similar customers be able to create user profiles.  Like any enterprising group of businesses, the content owners would then, in turn, share this incredible insight with advertisers to help the advertisers create relevant ads for specific groups.
Okay, now move to today, where we have an incredible 3- 4 billion web pages of content for people to access either through websites or other platforms … that is roughly 1 unique content source for every two people on earth (this is compared with some 3.5 million web pages that were active just 15 years ago!). Based upon this development, it is increasingly difficult for the content owner to create profiles which are accurate.  Think about it… How in the world could you create a unique profile, of every person, based on the unique combination of content they may each choose to access, let alone adapt that profile based on their mood, time of day and location in the world for each individual website?
In walks the Over the Top (OTT) player who is able to provide us with a new approach.  This new model monitors all webpage’s, applications and media, through cookies and operating system tools. The content providers and advertisers have had to adapt to the OTT’s and ensure they had the right arrangements in place to promote their online content or their relevant ads. Naturally this is a situation which neither the content owners, nor the advertisers, should be or are very satisfied with.
For this reason, it is no longer the content owners or the associated advertising providers who have the best visibility and analysis of the dynamic nature and changing profiles of each individual users given the enormous diversity of content to choose from. This ultimately means they have now become dependent on the OTT for data on customer profiles. Meanwhile, it is the OTT’s that have been increasingly dominating the ad space purely through volume of end users they have visibility of.  There haven’t been any alternatives or any noticeable limitations on what OTT’s could or couldn’t view. Until recently, OTT’s could capture all data, from all users, without any concerns on the public’s perception on where or how this data was being collected.  In essence OTT’s were the “All seeing eye”.
Despite the far reaching capabilities of OTT’s, there are now more regulations and increased savviness from internet users to block out cookies and ultimately decide what information they want to share about themselves.  This in turn, is making it harder for OTT’s to provide accurate profiling of end users, which leads to advertisers again looking for alternative means to present relevant ads to internet users. It is these changes which I refer to as the Power of One.  Me, you, all of us, now have the ability to decide how much data about ourselves we want to share (whether that is our location, our interests or even our friends).
Enter stage left, the one remaining group who should be building relationships with advertisers, and until now, have not been fully leveraged– Internet providers. What if you could sign up for ads that were relevant to you based on your interests, location and time of day, without worrying about someone gathering all of your personal data? Ok … I hear you saying I don't like ads, I understand and agree with that but, they are a fact of life, so let’s use the “Power of One” to see ads we want to see rather than ads they get the best deals for.  Signing up through your internet provider, whether at home, or in a cafĂ©, or a shopping mall, to define your areas of interest can be mutually beneficial. We trust internet providers not to store all of our data through the internet, and know that they have a customer service model that if we see any ads that we don’t think is appropriate we can ask they can act on it, something which OTT’s tend to propose they only facilitate and therefore can’t be held accountable for.
There are some interesting companies out there like Adztream, Jiwire and Urban Airship who are seeking to help advertise firms - and businesses seeking to advertise directly. They understand how to help advertisers adapt their approach to reaching out to individuals, through various solutions which are targeted at the changing profile at any time on any day. It is important for advertisers to maximize the changing landscape and rebalance their focus of engagement.  Move from the content owners to those providing access to the internet, whether in the form of operators (fixed and mobile) or private wifi owners such as malls, campuses, hotels and sporting events.
These companies are the early adopters in introducing alternative models which drive more of a symbiotic relationship between the advertisers, internet providers and most importantly the end users. It is now up to the internet providers to look at how they can best leverage these platforms and start shifting the traditional source of advertising from those pushing ads based on the “all seeing eye”, to pulling relevant ads for the end users which they have chosen to see or are relevant based on where they are at that point of time. So now what? Well, to advertisers, I would say start looking at alternative avenues and platforms to introduce relevant ads that avoid the discussion around privacy. To Internet Providers – it doesn’t matter whether you are a ISP, Mobile Operator, coffee shop or university, your private network gives you an opportunity to look at engaging partners to create a positive user experience subsidized by end user relevant advertising. For all of us, as end users, the internet experience is no longer about what we are told it is, but more about what we want it to be and most importantly about how much data on ourselves we are willing to share.
We, as the Power of One, need to remind ourselves that we define our own experience and the market will continue to evolve to the point where we will see ads more customized to our specific situations at any given time or location versus what OTT’s think we should see. The Power of One is not only alive and well, it is now clearly having an influence on the internet industry and the advertising revolution.