The NSA, Privacy and the Blatant Realization: Nothing You Do Online is Private

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I’ve been monitoring the events in the past week about PRISM, the NSA and the traitor/hero, Edward Snowden, former CIA, who lifted the veil and revealed to the the world the questionable practices of the US Agency, practices which, in my opinion, shouldn’t surprise any of us.

The graphic above from Gaping Void, nicely captured the voice of the Internet:

It wasn’t the fact that US State security had been so easily and openly compromised that seemed to shock people, but it was more a sudden sense of lost innocence that seemed to permeate the buzz-o-sphere.

I posted this article this week. From Julie Pippert’s viewpoint, we all deserve the right to keep what we want private, private. The events of 9/11 (as justified by the US government) seemingly no longer hold our civil liberties in high regard.


I had a similar conversation this week with Ann Marie van den Hurk, author of the just-published, Social Media Crisis Communications and she indicated, “Who is the NSA accountable to? The American people?” Apparently not.

But the NSA is accountable to the Executive Office, which granted the Agency the power to collect and analyze any and all information from the online and telecom networks.

From Privacy to Personal Violation

Now, Privacy has now been elevated to the point of personal violation where no stone is left unturned and everyone is suspect. Given the response from the internet, I am observing a certain naiveté when it comes to people’s understanding of how and why their information is being tracked.

Your most personal financial information: your debt, your spend patterns, your income are tracked and monitored by your financial institution and compiled by credit scoring institutions like Equifax to gauge your credit-worthiness and minimize risk to the bank.

While Facebook, we thought, was brought to its knees when the world watched as the FTC and Canada’s Privacy Commissioner mandated clearer user disclosures and guidelines, it was, in fact, only following the lead of publishers, ad networks, direct marketers, who have been collecting online user information for years: search behaviour, clicks, purchases, site visits, content consumption, etc.

I wrote this in December 2012, Big Data Will Change Advertising Forever. As a database marketer, I craved increased knowledge about customers and prospects. The more we knew about you the more we’d be able to put messages and offers in front of you to increase your propensity to purchase.

In that post, I referenced the work I had done at Yahoo! almost a decade ago, where online user behaviour was a strong focus for this publishing platform,

I was fortunate enough to work for Hunter Madsen, the Yahoo! guru who led the team that developed Behavioural Targeting for our company back in early-to-mid 2004. We were in awe as Hunter explained the mechanics of targeting users within the network, based on where they’d been, what content they consumed, what they searched for… also taking into consideration their geography, demographics and alignment with the target profile.

Time marches on and we’ve seen ad evolution in retargeting capability, dynamic ads that flex with your online footprint, geography, profile and emails you write, pages you “like” etc. And the industry will continue to evolve because there are huge dollars willing to be spent to find the right customer that is more receptive to the message at the right time and the right place.

Do you remember when a woman from Pennsylvania sued Google for Privacy invasion by displaying ads eerily similar to her email content?

Google admitted it did scan emails for malware and spam but argued that scanning content to provide relevant advertising should be an exception under the wiretap law, or as some would call The Fourth Amendment.

We Need to Progress

Those adamant that their information is their own, of which no one should have access whatsoever, should realize that there is a price to pay for using free services. The means of collecting personal information is also NOT new information.

The early days of direct mail and subscription-based magazines began to build more detailed profiles of individuals who subscribed to certain publications. When culled with transactional data, suddenly marketers had a way to build predictive models to optimize response performance. And that was exciting.

As this article highlights,

It’s similar to the way Amazon or eBay use databases to predict what you might want to buy next

Big data technologies will only grow the amount of information collected, and provide increased insights at faster rates as the world increases its usage of mobile, the web, google glasses, mobile payments etc. We can’t stop progress. The more data out there, the more demand from willing buyers to extract meaning from it.

Remember the CIA Facebook Program? This has made the surveillance efforts much more efficient. Yes, the government is using your data to tap into potential threats but it would have done so, regardless, through much more laborious means if the technology hadn’t been available. That’s progress.

CIA’s ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cut Agency’s Costs
Progress also means increased cloud-based technology. Progress means convergence: Governments, corporations, small business, NFP will all begin to use these technologies to remain competitive and move the business forward.

And yes, that means the very marketing technology solutions used to make more informed strategic decisions about customers, will also be tools demanded by security companies, law enforcement and government.

The reality is that there is so much more good that can be achieved by being able to analyze and predict outcomes from this mountain of information. But there is also a price to be paid.

The Need for Controls

The economics of data need to be balanced with controls, however. I remember this quote from a few years ago. Alluding to the fact that people are now embracing the use of social networks,

Mark Zuckerberg said, “Privacy is no longer a social norm”

I found this from a site called Writingya: From a purely individual perspective, where the rights of the citizen are now marginalized, the author had this to say,

The problem is that we have not created a privacy culture on the Internet that we can live with. We created the wrong one. What I think about is: What is intimacy without privacy? What is a democracy without privacy?…Technology makes people stupid. It can blind you to what your underlying values are and need to be. Are we really willing to give away our Constitutional and civil liberties that we fought so hard for?

The will of the people will demand more transparency.

They may be unable to stop the extent to which agencies like the NSA use personal information but the collective voice will make the government much more accountable for the safety and security of their information.

The reality of protecting the nation’s security: The less people that know, the better. The more transparent the government is, the less effective are the surveillance initiatives.

But we don’t want a state of surveillance that eerily feels like we’re living in a police state. There has to be a balance between ensuring the security of the nation and the containment of our civil liberties.

Image source: Gaping Void art

28 thoughts on “The NSA, Privacy and the Blatant Realization: Nothing You Do Online is Private

  1. AmyMccTobin says:

    What a lot to think about.  I am normally an optimist who believes that there are more good people than bad; when it comes to privacy I am a total cynic.  Because I am a fairly open person, I might not be as troubled as other people are, but when I read Julie Pippert’s comment on your FB wall earlier this week stating that EVERYONE has something to hide it really resonated with me.
    Here’s the thing: we all know that the Government leaks like a sieve; when does personal information start leaking too.  I listened to Mike Rogers, the Head of the House Intelligence Committee, argue that NOTHING was done without the proper approval through the justice system. I hope so, but again, totally cynical.
    The reality is – we can’t stop progress – I understand and am excited by what data analysis can do for marketing/product development etc.  It’s awesome for companies, and for the consumer.  I enjoy Amazon because so often it brings things I wouldn’t have known about to my attention.  BUT,  I was totally creeped out when I read about an app in Entrepreneur that uses your personal information to match you with friends of friends to create ‘group dates.’  At what point do we eliminate all chance from our life?

    • hessiej says:

      AmyMccTobin Fair point Amy. You’re right, where do we draw the line? When I speak about controls, I, as an individual not a marketer, have to ask the question, “Why do you need this specific information?” Is it to benefit me? Is it because you suspect me? There has to be a point where we draw the line. Where tracking ALL my data means really tracking the meta-information ie where the information came from and where it’s going, does this mean you’re dismissing the content? Apparently, that’s what the NSA is saying. However, in cases where you may be suspect is where the content becomes key. Thanks for the article re Mike Rogers, though I’m not sure I agree. I heard this morning that “secret government” is necessary to bypass normal protocols, all to ensure expediency and efficiency. I’m not sure where the true balance lies. All I know is that now that this information is in the hands of a more informed public, we’ll all be interested to hear how the government responds.

      • AmyMccTobin says:

        hessiej AmyMccTobin OK, so ‘secret government’ is definitely going too far.
        I’m picturing a world where randomness becomes so rare that we seek it out.  So it will be intentional randomness.  We are officially in Wonderland.

  2. Danny Brown says:

    What’s interesting is how consumers are pushing back on the very approaches marketers feel are non-invasive. There’s a great report over at Marketing Charts that show this revolt clearer than most:
    Some stats:84% say there are too many technologies tracking and analyzing behavior82% say that companies collect too much information on consumers79% are uneasy about their information being collected without them knowing it
    It’s something Robert at OpEdMarketing rightly questioned when talking about the Influence Marketing book – where do we separate the “useful because we’re meeting customer needs” and the “meeting needs is creepy”? It’s a fine line, and one that’s only going to get blurrier as the technology gets smarter.

    • hessiej says:

      Danny Brown OpEdMarketing Danny, I’m always caught between how much information is too much as well. But as your Influence book also dictates, the thirst for more knowledge about the customer is the holy grail of marketing. The next stage in advertising is “context” marketing so just imagine the amount of data we need from every individual to be able to serve customer the optimal messaging. 
      Thanks for the Marketing Charts Article. The one point I still find astonishing: “74% of American respondents (and 68% of respondents globally) find it creepy when companies target ads to consumers based on their behaviour.”  My question to the public: Why do you “think” that ad that you see on that website you visit everyday coincidentally strikes a chord with you? You click on it, stick around the page for a while but decide to come back later. Sites like Google, Yahoo, Facebook know where you are and where you’ve been. Your seeing that ad is not coincidence. It’s predicting your propensity to respond based on your past behaviour.
      Behavioural algorithms have been around for many years. Search algorithms are even more sophisticated. Just ask Google. Disciplines in semantic search and natural language processing (NLP) are getting better everyday and their increasing accuracy is what companies are willing to pay for. 
      At the end of the day, this will sell more products/services for companies BUT it will also connect those customers, looking for particular solutions with the right product. And that should be a win/win for everyone.

      • hessiej Danny Brown OpEdMarketing A very important topic, thanks for the insight Hessie and thanks Danny for involving me in the conversation.  
        I was at an Internet Retail Conference (IRCE) in Chicago a few weeks ago, and attended a really interesting session on internet security and privacy.  A gentlemen from eTrust talked about how it’s possible for companies to track your movements through apps when you’re phone is on (including where you live, and who you associate with), and soon there will be facial recognition technology that has the ability to “show” you the appropriate ad based on your demographic profile (e.g. male/female, age, etc.).  Scary stuff.  
        He also mentioned that there’s a growing mistrust of consumers with what companies do with their private information (especially in lieu of recent events).  I think to gain back this trust, marketers will not only have to have make privacy policies more transparent (e.g. not hidden in fine print), but actually part of their brand promise.  It’s a great way to differentiate your company from competitors – people will want to deal with brands with exemplary privacy records just like they want to deal with brands with exemplary environmental records.

        • Danny Brown says:

          OpEdMarketing hessiej It’s weird, mate – as Hessie says, as marketers it’s a conflict, since we want more data, but we shouldn’t crave that at the expense of human liberty. I dread to think the openness my kids will be part of when they’re a few years older, whether they choose to or not. Like you say, that’s where brands need to get ethical – but sadly I won’t be holding my breath for many.

        • Danny Brown hessiej It’s true, I won’t be holding my breath either.  But with this type of phenomenon there’s always counterbalancing forces at work. In an age of zero privacy companies will have everything on consumers, but consumers will also have everything on companies. All it will take is a Snowden-type to out companies acting unethically and they will be forced to adjust.  Just look at how RBC and big banks have been forced to address the outsourcing of jobs outside Canada issue.  So there’s hope, even if it small.

        • hessiej says:

          OpEdMarketing Danny Brown This very discussion reminds me of another one that happened when email became a big deal. Seth Godin’s paper on Permission Marketing was trying to establish the type of transparency and controls you speak of Robert. You’re absolutely right when you say that companies need to do this. And privacy legislation will force companies into making sure they do all this. Yes RBC has learned its lesson and so has Dell and Starbucks and other companies whose feet have been held to the social media fire. Time will tell to see where all of this leads. Big money talks and data is NOT going away. Whether the individual will have the same concerns about this issue over time is another question as @bowden2bowden alluded to me this morning.

  3. hessiejones says:

    RTRViews bowden2bowden JanJekielek Thanks for the mention guys! As a marketer, the events surrounding the NSA and Prism conflict me

    • bowden2bowden says:

      hessiejones as they should, however it is not a surprise and an issue that will certainly only become more passive in time

      • hessiejones says:

        bowden2bowden agree, however times have changed and whether the collective will of the people demands change will determine where this goes

        • bowden2bowden says:

          hessiejones the outcry seems to be waning and the justification seems manipulated to sway, IMHO

  4. bobledrew says:

    I was just listening to an interview with Ann Cavoukian, who made a great comment. She said (and I’m probably not getting it EXACTLY right): “The concerns around privacy aren’t about SECRECY; they’re about CONTROL.” 
    What we willingly hand over to people such as Facebook, Livefyre, etc. is control over part of the kaleidoscope of information that makes up our online identity. It’s so very hard to figure out the difference between what we CAN do and what we SHOULD do, both as citizen and (in both your case, Hessie, and mine) as user of others’ data. 
    Thanks for writing this.

    • hessiej says:

      bobledrew Bob, that’s definitely very profound — I’m glad you brought it up. Control really does rests on our hands as citizens. Going forward, will people be more discerning about what they disclose. Perhaps this brings to light an evolved behaviour that now brings citizens an epiphany about this new internet and what they SHOULD share. I know I remind my kids of this everyday. Here’s something I wrote in a previous article about Facebook:
      “The world of social media has allowed platforms like Facebook and Twitter to play on the human need for reinforcement and validation. It’s game mechanics for “Likes” and “Comments” are those bits of validation that satisfies. In a way, Facebook is training all who use Facebook, to disclose more information about us. The more we embroider the account of our daily lives, the more social reinforcement we receive. We satisfy our own needs. In turn, Facebook accumulates more information that continuously stitches together a tighter and richer view of who we are.”

  5. hiphopchess says:

    tonia_ries DannyBrown Hi guys, I recently interviewed CEO of Sgrouples on #privacy Please give it a listen at

  6. hessiejones says:

    bobledrew thanks Bob! What was the second thing you’d wish you’d written? ArCIntel

  7. […] We all agreed that the value of Big Data is slowly becoming the holy grail to business, hoping to find the sweet spot that can determine what drives a consumer to buy. However, consumers are ever wary of the amount of information that is available to business especially in the face of the NSA scandal. […]

  8. […] my post, “The NSA and Privacy“, this sense of personal violation and misplaced trust, especially at the hands of the very […]

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