There’s value in big tech watching everything we do

These days, whether we like it or not, our personal data and preferences are being mined at every touchpoint. While some abhor the idea, Bold's Toby Hemming is okay with his TV watching him as much as he watches it.

A friend of mine recently offered up his take on advertising, tech and his perception of its effect upon his life, society and more.

Put simply, they’re watching us all the time. And he doesn’t like it. Not one little bit.

He’s a clever guy with the ability to scrutinise arguments and come to considered opinions. So more intriguing I suppose was this response to my next question. Why not?

“I just don’t like the idea of corporations tracking what I do.”

My response? “Yes, big tech is watching us, but I’m not bothered. It makes for better ads.”

It’s simply a classic value exchange at work.

Advertising is a fact of life. Whether you think it’s manipulative, overwhelming, malign, or all of the above, the fact is, it’s here to stay. Unless you are specifically paying to access a website, or download an app, you are paying with your data to tweak which ads you see – and that is not going to change.

I can understand why not everyone is thrilled with this new reality. But the ultra-connected world we live in means our digital footprint is everywhere. It’s become our currency as we move around the web.

Take Google for example. The digital-tracker-in-chief has built a seemingly unstoppable business from using our personal data to create an online profile to entice advertisers. But it’s a free service. Most of us are happy to use it as a digital conduit and accept the opportunity cost is giving away a bit of our privacy. And being served relevant ads isn’t exactly the equivalent of someone peering through your curtains.

But the issue may be that this seems self-evident to us working within the media industry, but not to the rest of the world. To others, it’s creepy, intrusive and increasingly unwelcome, particularly when you throw the likes of Alexa speakers and connected TVs into the mix.

Until now, this might just be low-level grumbling. After all, did anyone cancel their Facebook account after Cambridge Analytica? The platform’s annual results certainly indicate not. And recent research indicates that an overwhelming majority of younger people would rather exchange their data than pay for services like Facebook and Instagram.

That said, any digital business relying upon third-party data needs to be careful about resting on their laurels. Rather than convincing the public to part with its data through a ‘business as usual’ smokescreen, big tech needs to instead communicate the value exchange better.

The GDPR that came in last year was an attempt by regulators to create more transparency. But that’s the umpire trying to influence the game. Real change needs to be driven by the big players themselves.

They need to communicate the importance of data and explain that, yes, they will use it to build an advertising profile of people. A big part of backing up this message will come through ditching the legalese in privacy policies and making them much more succinct.

If large tech companies commit to this, I’m convinced people will be much more accepting of the perceived intrusion into their privacy. Especially when they can see what they’re getting in return.

And don’t think this is me exonerating big tech for their stuff ups. The last few years have revealed a lot of the shadier practices used to access and share data with third parties. It’s widely agreed this needs to be stamped out – to do anything less would see the tech giants imperilling their own existence.

But equally important will be showing a bit of bravery and publicly declaring what we all know – that our data is the cornerstone of their business models. By making data acquisition less of a covert operation, and instead starting a conversation with people about the mutual benefits of sharing, we’ll all be better off.

Toby Hemming is the managing director of Bold Communications


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