Not long ago if you went to McDonalds for a coffee, it came with a sticker on the cup. If you saved up six on a little piece of card (also on the cup), your 7th coffee was free. A simple system, and very private.
That sticker system was scrapped in 2020, for an app1. Suddenly, McDonalds have gone from knowing nothing about you, to collecting your financial info, your location and even looking at your search and browsing history. And for your <cough> convenience, you can sign-in with Facebook, Google or Apple.
OK, so I work in business too, and it’s imperative that you use data to understand customer behaviour and market to them. But do you really need this level of information? This is just one example of what I refer to as ‘creeping surveillance’.
How data about you is monetized
I can only guess at what all that data is used for in the example above2, but it’s typical of many apps that give you free stuff in exchange for data. I also don’t want to beat-up on McDonalds – as a reputable business they do provide opt-outs and are doing a lot to transform their business into a more sustainable one, which is great news.
Much more problematic are where the developer’s ONLY purpose for the app is to siphon your data – the user functions are merely a ruse designed to get you to install it. From games to widgets, productivity apps, and even ones that claim to protect your privacy. Whatever function you need, you can be pretty sure there’s a ‘data vampire’ app for that.
But why? Well, data about you is a lucrative business.
We value your privacy
It may be the biggest lie ever told. They sure do value it though. They value it because your privacy is up for sale all over the place – and mostly, WITH your consent3. Cookie walls – you hate them, so you click OK. Privacy policies – you hate them too, so you don’t read them. Data collection opt-outs are hidden or long winded. It’s all by design. It’s called obfuscation, and they want you to give in. Even user ‘privacy control panels’ are mostly designed to mislead you – all of which, incidentally, is not technically allowed under GDPR.
Data about you4 makes $billions for big tech, but smaller companies can still make huge profits from personal data collected from websites and apps. Depending on the level of detail, the data from just a few thousand individuals could net thousands of dollars for a small company, or even a lone developer. It all goes into a pot that profiles you to a scary level of detail – believe me when I say they can predict your actions better than you can. That’s why real time bidding ad-clicks can go for anything from a few cents to $2 and up. Remember, that’s just for a single user click on an ad.
It’s time for business to believe in choice
Creeping surveillance has become normalized when it really should not be – it’s dysfunctional. Many people believe privacy to be a human right. Even Mark Zuckerberg purchased the properties surrounding his own5 to create a privacy buffer for his family (which you contributed to, I’m sure he’s grateful). It’s not the only example – Larry Page, the co-founder of Google is a famously private person. The fact is that the people that want to trade on your privacy, crave it for themselves.
This is why data collection should be a choice. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Let’s not forget that many people are happy with data collection – they want the most integrated and tailored experience possible. And they want it even though they know the ramifications; I’ve met ‘privacy professionals’ that think this way. Personally, I do my best to avoid tracking, apart from with the companies I trust, then I play the game. Surely looking for engaged people like that means you’ve found your hot prospect?
Talking from the business side for a moment, there are plenty of ways to combine tactics – tokenisation, anonymization, differential marketing (and more), in addition to what I’m sad to say has become ‘traditional’ data collection. Let people choose, it fosters trust. Make it simple to select what level of tracking people are comfortable with, including ‘none’. This layered approach will make your prospects and customers happy – if they trust you. It shouldn’t really trouble you unless you are Meta, Google, or swathe of other big names, of course.
The problem is that marketing teams are under so much pressure to get lead numbers up, lead quality suffers. This is often driven by sales management demanding more leads, only to complain about lead quality afterwards, at which point they blame marketing. So, whether you’re in sales and marketing or just reading this with a casual interest in privacy, consider this. When the starting gun was fired on GDPR in May 2018, many US websites worried about the legal consequences blocked European visitors, but the New York Times took a different approach. They dropped real-time bidding and behavioural ads and focused on contextual and regional ads instead. The NYT ad business continued to grow ‘nicely’ as they put it6, even without all that creepy targeting.
In my next blog I’ll be looking at what you can do to preserve your privacy. When you lose ground to this sort of creeping erosion of your rights, it can be really very hard to reclaim them, so it’s important that we all keep fighting.
1: This blog refers to the UK App; screen shot shows the privacy information from Apple’s UK app store. Data collection may vary by country or region
2: I have asked McDonalds why they need my browsing history on several occasions, but so far, they have not responded
3: Don’t get hung-up on consent folks, it’s not needed if a business has what’s called a ‘legitimate interest’ – which can be a rather stretchy, elastic term when in the hands of less reputable businesses
4: Note that I don’t refer to it as ‘your data’ – that’s because it isn’t
5: Why Mark Zuckerberg buys up properties that surround his 10 homes:
6: After GDPR, The New York Times cut off ad exchanges in Europe — and kept growing ad revenue, Digiday, Jan 2019: