June 3, 2008
When more than two years ago these fillips began to illustrate the challenges of eprivacy from media reports on current events, I feared my formula would run out after a few months. Little did I know that perpetual emotion does not violate the laws of political science. Perpetual emotion engines simply meet three conditions. An issue the people care about deeply. A solution both obvious to reasonable observers and yet impractical in view of human nature. Deadly consequences of inaction safely contained, at least until the whole society concerned collapses and time comes to a stop (1).
How frustrating to one who claims to have a solution, as I do for the eprivacy challenge. But what must it be for Thomas L. Friedman when he outlines what would be "the best - [...] really the best - energy policy for the long term economic health and security of [the United States]" (*). At least I can ascribe failure so far to my lack of visibility. Deprived of this excuse, his only solace is that his impolitic suggestions will keep him in print.
Frustration should not prevent us to investigate the reasons behind the intractability we deplore. As far as eprivacy is concerned we saw last month how Google's status as the current leading platform supplier conspires with capitalists' greed to insure nothing short of a revolution can prevent its highjacking our privacy. Yet putting the blame on Google or on capitalism to the exclusion of other factors would be both unjust and a fatal mistake.
Privacy stands in the way of power and everyone of us loves power. Hence the heady attraction of spying.
Mark Landler reports how Deutsche Telekom has been rocked by accusations of having tracked phone calls by its own board of directors to find the source of news leaks (**). Compared to the 2006 Hewlett-Packard scandal (2), this case is twice as ominous. I may pen a Halloween story about Internet-savvy dictators or warn about implied racism in security-conscious Texas. As noted by Mark Landler, actions by a state-controlled German company recall less hypothetical oppressions. History aside, the seriousness of the crime is proportional to the means and mission of the accused. Deutsche Telekom is no Hewlett-Packard. Leading phone service provider in its own country, it routinely generates highly confidential data on the majority of the German population, data it is required by law to archive for state surveillance purposes (3). Who watches the watchers?
Do not dismiss Deutsche Telekom as an aberration. Spying is deeply embedded in our economy. As Alan Cane explains, "tracking [company fleet] vehicle movements in real time is important for both control and fiscal reasons" (***). Market makers routinely monitor all sports bets lest gamblers benefit from game fixing, reports Joe Drape (****). A social website targeting physicians, Sermo (4), offers free services with the understanding user online activities may be observed by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, plus government agencies. Given this context, do not be surprised if privacy protection laws turn out to be a joke and employees consider celebrity record chasing a perk.
Confronted to power, people do not normally staged costly revolutions but they are good at dulling its edge and withdrawing active support.
Web 2.0 is not yet a runaway financial success according to Chris Nuttall and Richard Waters (*****). Indeed social networks make user rebellions easy to kindle, witness the defeat of Beacon. Naked management inexperience at Facebook was a contributing factor. It would be interesting to check whether Sermo has reaped any benefit from being, contrary to Facebook, upfront with its spying business model.
Beyond rebellions, marketing managers ought to fret lest the very promise of our interactive age be broken by user apathy. Reading Stephanie Clifford's article on "billboards that look back" (******), I went through three phases. Admiration to what imaginative lengths advertising networks can go to spy on people. Admission as to the benign nature of what amounts to watching how people behave in public. Anticipation that in the near future parents will tell their children "do not stare at ads in the street, they might be mean and cost you."
Propelled by perpetual emotion, prepare for a future fillip about posters which shout at passers-by who ignore them.
- (*) .............. Truth or Consequences, by Thomas L. Friedman (New-York Times) - May 28, 2008
- (**) ........... Phone Giant in Germany Stirs a Furor, by Mark Landler (New-York Times) - May 27, 2008
- (***) ......... Telematics: spy in the cab or a vital digital assistant, by Alan Cane (Financial Times) - May 28, 2008
- (****) ....... Web Site Puts Focus on Fix In Sports Bets , by Joe Drape (New-York Times) - May 25, 2008
- (*****) ..... Euphoria over Web 2.0 is tempered by social problems, by Chris Nuttall and Richard Waters (Financial Times) - May 26, 2008
- (******) .. Billboards That Look Back, by Stephanie Clifford (New-York Times) - May 31, 2008
- (1) see Easter Island in the wikipedia for a rare example of terminal collapse
- (2) for more references, look up Damon Darlin in the author index of these fillips
- (3) see the European Directive on data retention by public telecommunication service providers
- (4) see Sermo in the wikipedia