It was revealed last week that the American intelligence services have been spying on people to an unprecedented level. It shook even their allies in Europe when it became clear that it was not just American citizens who were being monitored but the people across the rest of the world too. Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower, now being called a traitor by some while hailed as a hero by others. Despite denials, it is suspected by many that the search engines and social media such as Google and Facebook have consented and co-operated in this surveillance.
I have just spent two days at the popular ad:tech event in Singapore. Listening to the speakers and walking around the accompanying exhibition, it came home to me, just how much of our activities and actions are being recorded not by spymasters but our own industry. The marketers no longer rely on research using a sample on which to estimate the number of readers or viewers. We no longer make a handful of phone calls and street interviews to get customer feedback. Even the measurement of site visitors and advertising clicks is now considered just basic information. The accumulation and analysis of data, sorry “big data”, linked to new technology means we can track and target individuals. As marketers we love this. We can reach out to Joe or Jennifer as they pass a café or shopping centre with a location-based offer. We can monitor in real time their Tweets or capture Facebook comments and record their likes and dislikes. Joe’s friends become ours too by photo sharing and his choice of food dishes interests us as much as the restaurateur. Jennifer will have advertisements tailored to her personal tastes or her current situation, served up instantly in real time to her mobile. As advertising and marketing professionals, we naturally find these exciting developments. We are beginning to be able to target the individual which means less waste of the client’s budget. But as a human being, I find it chilling to think that the USA, or any Government, or even a commercial enterprise is tracking my calls, identifying my friends, following me when I travel, and monitoring my web searches. While much data collected is simply numbers gathering, we sailing close to the edge and it makes me nervous.