If you’ve worked in the technology field, chances are high you’re familiar with Amara’s Law.
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”
That “Law” seems purpose-written for the current debate on privacy and digital identity. Pundits and opinion run rampant on the subject.
Topping the New York Times bestseller list, the ubiquitous reach of social networks turns ugly and Orwellian in Dave Egger’s book “The Circle”. The Economist, never one to shy away from a critical debate, dedicated a recent issue to the speed with which wearable technologies like Google Glass are creating an always-on, always-recorded world – with or without our permission. Usually techno-positive in their outlook, in this case their positivity was more guarded. They see as many pitfalls as they see potential.
All these technology advances have one ultimate destination.
The creation, and activation, of your digital identity.
That holy grail that allows the flesh-and-blood you to connect seamlessly to the Internet of Things. Your preferences, your purchasing history, your financial accounts, your medical history (and medical present), your friends and their recommendations all digitally woven together so you can interact with everything from booking engines, vending machines, family doctors and shopping carts in a pain-free digital Utopia.
Here in Canada we’ve seen a flurry of activity amongst the Telcos and Financial Institutions as they begin weaving the fabric of this digital identity together. This well-researched piece from Robin Arnfield breaks out the infrastructure and business thinking behind these local moves. Rogers is launching a bank, partnering on mobile wallets, TELUS is deepening their infrastructure in the area of digitizing healthcare records that, like any e-gov initiative, sorely needs private sector assistance. I do find it a delicious irony that a country that has agonized over defining its national identity is barreling toward digital identities with little of the same introspection and hand-wringing.
Honestly as interesting as the business strategies are, I’m more interested in this debate from the POV of average citizens.
I‘m no techno-anthropologist – I leave that stuff to the brilliant Sherry Turkle – but I do believe it is an important issue. So important, that I’d strongly urge you to watch this recent Op-Ed piece from the New York Times on Digital surveillance.
So sign me up or sign me off?
Personally I don’t know quite yet.
I reached out to three friends in three very different markets. London, Toronto and Stockholm. I wanted their opinions – as seasoned marketers and average citizens – on what digital identity means to them in their countries.
Here’s their thoughts on this very contentious subject.
In Canada, its complicated
I don’t know whether this is the perfect Orwellian storm or a massive Pynchonesque conspiracy.
Either way, as big data starts to drive more marketing decisions, more will be invested in structuring and harvesting the data ‘they’ have on you and me. And come harvest time, security organizations will be there with a front-end loader to scoop up whatever can be used against you in a future court date. More proof that, as Woody Harrelson said in this morning’s Globe and Mail, “Government is just a bunch of businessmen working for bigger businessmen, with the welfare of the people a quaint but illusory notion.”
So what do Canadians think of all this? Our response to Edward Snowden’s actions and to the idea of unfettered government surveillance is complicated. According to a survey conducted in June of this year by AbacusData, most Canadians would describe Snowden as a whistleblower, not a traitor. And most Canadians would welcome targeted online surveillance of suspected terrorist threats but would oppose a broader program of online surveillance.
That is what I would call an eminently reasonable response. Whether they are aware of it or not, Canadians have echoed the counsel of John Stuart Mill: privacy affords us the autonomy to make choices freely. If we value that freedom, we must actively defend it. How vigorously we are ready to do that remains to be seen.
Most Swedes leave a substantial digital trail.
More than two out of three of my countrymen have a smartphone. 80% claim to have high trust in digital money transfers. Two out of three do their income-tax returns electronically. “Analog” operations like cash withdrawals are restricted and treated with suspicion by bank employees. Using public transport without credit card, mobile phone or travel pass is now virtually impossible.
In addition Swedes are, generally, a law-abiding and highly trusting people. We expect the government to regulate corporate abuse and have strict laws on illegal monitoring and storing and cross referencing of data on our citizens. Particularly without their consent.
Despite this, there is surprisingly little debate on our digital identity and what it means in terms of privacy and personal integrity.
Case in point,it was recently reported that medical records for several million Swedes are stored online in unencrypted form, and lack basic firewall protection, yet this glaring error failed to create public outrage. The Swedish Data Inspection Board criticized the system heavily, but reactions in media and among citizens at large were hardly noticeable. We Swedes seem to place a lot of trust in our government and trust they’ll effectively govern corporations, and themselves, when it comes to our data.
There are exceptions. There is an ongoing debate about whether the Swedish Intelligence Agency (SÄPO) should be able to monitor domestic email traffic via Swedish telcos. Only one telco, Tele2, has taken a clear position against it. They’ve refused to grant access to their traffic information for the sake of their clients’ integrity. Will the others will follow Tele2′s lead? It is too early to say, but if not it could turn out to be a real competitive advantage for Tele2.
Its about your age, not your market
As Hilton mentioned, living in London means accepting that someone (the British government) is happily photographing you going about your daily business or stumbling out of the pub. Any true Londoner has almost forgotten those damn CCTV cameras everywhere.
For me though, Digital Identity and associated issues like privacy really depend on how old you are and how digitally comfortable you are. I’m part of the digital native generation (and how much do I hate that phrase) and we’re very used to plugging in all sorts of details to websites, social networks, mobile apps and so on.
But we expect a lot for all those details.
Better web experiences. More personalized experiences from advertisers, else we’ll ignore or block them anyway. Generally a digital experience that uses our information and creates something human, useful and personalized for us.
My information should lead to My Internet.
Perhaps my generation, and the next, is just more hopeful and optimistic that all this information will lead to something positive. Social networks, as useful and intrusive as you choose them to be, were a first step. And the true personalization I’m talking about is really just in its infancy.
If more products or experiences were like this particular gem – the Craft Beer London App – then I think we could really start talking about Digital Identity. How about it not only did it told me about a fantastic local pub, it also pre-ordered a drink I would like as I walked through the door… ahhhh the cold, refreshing taste of the future?
So what can we conclude from these three markets?
What commonalities? What differences?
Personally, I was surprised at the commonalities. A very subdued reaction from the average citizen. The outcry against Project PRISM seems now to have been a momentary flash in the pan.
Perhaps the reality of your digital identity isn’t real enough yet. We still reach for our credit cards after dinner, fumble for government-issued ID when we go to the doctor and have to remember numerous PIN’s and passwords when we want to buy anything online.
Maybe we should revisit this topic when buying jeans from The Gap is as easy as a Tom Cruise movie?
What say you Dear Reader? Are you salivating at the usefulness of a Digital Identity? Are you in the Aldous Huxley or George Orwell camp?
I’d love your comments below.
So too would the NSA I’m sure.
My thanks to my friends from various markets.
Will Novosedlik likes to play in traffic at the intersections of business, politics, branding and design. He is Head of Brand Experience at global strategic innovation consultancy Idea Couture and is based in Toronto.
Karl-Oskar has spent the last 17 years marketing FMCG, consumer electronics and mobile phones. He is currently Head of Marketing for Pay TV within MTG, one of Sweden’s largest media houses. Karl-Oskar is passionate about marketing that creates real tangible results and drives a business forward.
Adrian Jarvis is a freelance strategy director currently working with a range of leading digital agencies on branding, platform design and connected devices. Over the last 18 years he has worked for both major agency networks such as Ogilvy and McCann Worldgroup, as well as leading digital specialists such as R/GA and Organic Inc.