Privacy's Pariahs

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Congratulations, interactive marketers: You have been anointed the new villains of the digital age. Like the chemical polluters of the 1960s, the napalm makers of the '70s, the oil companies of the '80s and the HMOs of the '90s, interactive marketers are on the cusp of some very bad press.

Unless you mobilize a counteroffensive today, by 2005, people will fight to sit next to hygienically challenged insurance salesmen rather than be seen sitting next to a privacy-violating interactive marketer.

The privacy diginistas (the name we've given the East Coast-based computer intelligentsia), who are increasingly becoming the focus of media attention, are building personal and professional brands at our expense. These people are so anti-marketing it's scary. They don't call us "Big Brother"; they refer to us as a downsized Orwellian variant, "Kid Brothers."

"Interactive marketers are the new villains of privacy," they scream. Privacy advocates growl that society should not turn its concern to totalitarian regimes, nor send energy against well-meaning but overly nosy democracies. The biggest threat to privacy, so they claim, comes from profit-seeking marketers.

I don't know about you, but I don't like interactive marketers being positioned as piranha-like privacy villains. If the interactive marketing industry is not careful, we will be forever branded the bad boys on the digital block. With Y2K gone, the world needed another crisis. Privacy advocates were the alarmists-du-jour, ready to step into that void. We are right in their sights.

In the past six months, a pattern of media and thought manipulation has surfaced that is very troubling to those of us who would see the new economy continue its phenomenal growth through 2005 and beyond. Elements of the diginistas, pissed that they don't live in Silicon Valley and torqued that they didn't get stock for all the truly cool IPOs for their friends and family, are mobilizing to spoil the cyber-party.

These cyber-left-behinds, data privacy tree-huggers and self-appointed guardians of digital rights for the bit-challenged, privacy-violated hoi polloi have targeted interactive marketers as the "digital satans" of the wired world. Privacy is their rallying cry.

The meta-crisis

For an instant, the technology portion of the media/entertainment industry experienced a meta-crisis -- a crisis about crises. In our over-communicated world, everywhere you look and everywhere you click, there are things to see and, depending on your mindset, things to worry about. The crisis was: What should we position as a "crisis"?

Nothing focuses the mind quite like a crisis. The media enjoy a crisis. It sells trade papers, populates conferences, spices up chat rooms, pumps up ratings on talk-shows and creates new heroes and villains.

There will always be some people who just don't trust machines. Many of them work in advertising agencies. Early technology was, by its very nature, dehumanizing -- it replaced humans with machines.

The digital technologies coming down the pike today, to be deployed by 2005, are not job-destroying; they are job-creating. No one would accuse the Internet of destroying jobs. One need only look at the hiring frenzy and recruiting histrionics in Silicon Valley to see that "being digital" is good for the economy.

Right now, companies spend anywhere from 3% to 10% of annual revenue on information technology. That number will grow to 25% by 2005, with three-fourths of that IT money being spent directly on interactive marketing projects.

In the late '90s, the question for interactive marketers was, "What kind of computer should I buy?" In 2005, the question will be, "What kind of computer shall I be?" The high ground of interactive marketing will be processing customer information. It would be hard to accuse digital technology of taking food out of anyone's mouth, of not creating wealth.

Mary Shelley penned "Frankenstein" in 1818 and captured a general societal unease with technology. The classic "You are my creator, but I am your master" is a phrase many fear might emerge from an iMac or a Palm Pilot VII.

As communications and data processing technology continues to advance at a pace in excess of the typical rate of societal change, it's natural for conflicts to occur on the border between cyberspace and the physical world. Our grandparents were exposed to how-we-live-our-lives, technology-driven changes two or three times every 100 years. In today's world, every five years a new device comes along that monumentally changes behavior. In 2005, a gut-wrenching, rewire-your-house-and-rethink-your-life technology will come along every 30 months. Who can blame many among us for wanting to revert to a kinder, gentler evolutionary stage, when we gathered low-fat grubs and berries and traveled without pagers, cell phones and beepers?

What is not natural -- in fact, what is a bit perverse -- is the kind of neo-Luddism that is at the base of most privacy concerns. Technology is not to blame for privacy violations.

Alan Westin, a Columbia University professor and an early privacy advocate, was very anti-machine. In "Databanks in a Free Society -- Computers, Record Keeping and Privacy," he wrote: "Almost inevitably, transferring information from a manual file to a computer triggers a threat to civil liberties, to privacy, to a man's very humanity, because access is so simple."

Author Simon Garfinkel has followed in Mr. Westin's footsteps, writing, "Computers would make it possible to create an indelible history of a person's life mistakes, making it impossible for that person ever to get a second chance."

Is the problem with the computer that generates the record or with the human resources person/employer reading the computer-based record?

Mr. Garfinkel has written an important new book, "Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century." In it, he researches and brilliantly arrays a second-to-none set of facts surrounding the issue of privacy. The tome bristles with evocative and powerful scenarios and case studies of how "dark" a world of surveillance machines run amok and privacy abuses can be. The book jacket likens the work to Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," which 40 years ago helped mainstream people understand that pesticides were bad for the environment.

Mr. Garfinkel's book is a must-read. Unfortunately, the analysis of real-world implications is flawed, and the action plan unexecutable.

I close my computers-don't-hurt-privacy, people-hurt-privacy rant with a reference to an historic privacy breach. Sources tell me that President Clinton does not have a computer in the Oval Office (he prefers legal pads). President Clinton's lack of privacy cannot be blamed on a computer, cannot be blamed on the Internet and most certainly cannot be laid at the feet of the interactive marketing industry. At the root of the issue is human behavior. The thinking reader should not be tempted into techlash (dislike/distrust of all digital things).

It's going too far to believe that a set of laws can protect personal privacy, or to believe that our legislators are ready to craft such laws. It's wrong-headed to believe that our government must create a "privacy czar," a "digital Jesus" to manage the digital satans unleashed by the venalities of e-commerce.

We need bravery on the part of political leaders. We need vision on the part of a new breed of marketers to help consumers reconceptualize and understand themselves digitally. Perhaps what we need most is an understanding of what our mutual obligations and responsibilities are in a connected economy.

Thornton May is a corporate futurist at Cambridge Technology Partners, an Internet professional services firm.

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