The Nuanced World of Privacy

Wed, 09/06/2021 - 09:29

With the grace period for compliance with POPIA drawing to a close on 1 July, there’s not much time left for local companies to get their house in order. A failure to comply with the letter of the law could see infringers hit with fines of up to R10m and jail sentences for irresponsible executives.

Recent announcements by the Information Regulator - including the gazetting of a notice allowing it to activate a 2013 law that bans the processing of unique identifiers such as phone numbers - a signal that Pansy Tlakula is likely to come out swinging when the starting bell rings in a few weeks time.

Facebook leak hits Zuckerberg

Commentators note that the gazetted notice seems aimed at Facebook - notorious not only for the way it stitches together and sells user information but also for the manner and frequency with which data leaks through its firewalls. In mid-April the business had to confront the awkward revelation that the privacy of half a billion customers had been infringed when their details were published on the web. Ironically, somewhere towards the end of what must have been a very sizeable database - scraped off the social media platform back in 2019 - lurked the name and cellphone number of a certain M Zuckerberg.

What remains perplexing about the privacy debate is that despite the leaks and the widespread media coverage of the social media giants’ nefariousness, we consumers continue to exhibit a startling degree of nonchalance toward our data. Yes, countless studies say that we won’t trust brands who fail to safeguard it .. but like smokers who ignore the health warnings on their ciggie packets, we continue to make poor decisions, choosing instead to rely on regulators and big tech to protect us. Apple’s led the privacy fight from the tech corner. Most iPhone users will have seen messages - called privacy labels - pop up in their apps in the past few weeks. These are designed to let us know what data’s being captured and let us choose what we’re willing to share. Even Google is coming to the party, but Facebook continues to play ostrich-like with its head buried firmly in the sand.

The marketer’s conundrum

This creates a conundrum for marketers. Should we take the high ground and try to build proper, meaningful relationships with our target audience based on respect? Or do we continue to play creepy, opting for expediency and operating on the periphery of what’s ethically and legally acceptable in the knowledge that consumers probably don’t care too much.

The first course is the obvious one. But it’s hard work and expensive to produce the old school advertising magic of insightful strategy coupled to the type of enticing, original creative that’ll make people sit up and pay attention before parting with their cash. In an era where CMOs face unprecedented pressure to align marketing spend with sales revenue, it’s no surprise that all too much marketing prioritises short term tactical activity over long term brand building. And that’s the space adtech occupies with its alluring promises of quick ROI. So my guess is that many businesses will opt to continue playing in dark corners.

P&G’s ‘useful content’

P&G was caught out doing just this recently. In mid April The Wall St Journal (paywall) reported that the company has been working with the state-backed China Advertising Association to develop a work around that’ll beat Apple’s new privacy tools and allow advertisers to continue capturing data which can be used to target ads. The story had P&G’s spin doctors scrambling - they later put out a press release containing the laughable statement that the new tracking technology was simply part of its commitment to “deliver useful content consumers want..."

The big issue many of us have with this type of targeting is that it can be used by brands, political parties and other dodgy actors to present a very misleading picture that plays to our existing belief structure. Followers of Bob Hoffman will have seen his recent coverage of a report in The Markup which found the oil company ExxonMobil was flighting ads on Facebook. Nothing unusual in that. Except for the fact that there were two quite contradictory ads. People Facebook’s algorithm had determined to be liberals were flighted content highlighting Exxon’s move away from oil to a greener future. Conservatives, by contrast, were shown ads complaining that America’s unnecessarily stringent environmental legislation was destroying the US economy. It’s not exactly purpose driven marketing is it?

Back to POPIA and why it matters. Given the astonishing level of consumer disinterest in privacy we can be very grateful that there’s at least one department in our rather wobbly government that has our backs. The team over at Forrester have produced a rather nifty map that shows just how good our privacy regulations are (spoiler - we’re better protected than the US and in a similar position to France and the UK although not as well off as Germany). It’ll be interesting to see just how quickly the Information Regulator gets out of the blocks and starts laying down fines, but if we can emulate what’s happened in Europe where over 50 penalty notices have been handed out in the last three years it has to be good news. While most of these targeted companies who’d failed to safeguard their databases, it opens up conversations about privacy and marks a move in the right direction.

*This article originally appeared on MarkLives

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