Forget Street View, there is a far more subtle – and pervasive – invasion of your private life being carried out – this time through your mobile phone.
When the furore about Google Street View washed across the UK last month, Google must have been pleased. For a much more sinister invasion of privacy had gone unnoticed. A week before, Google had, without any fanfare, released 11 software applications for mobile phones that spell a fundamental change in our lives, Pete Warren reports.
Among the applications were functions such as text messaging, web browsing, a diary, Orkut – the company’s social networking offering – and a program for Google Maps. Innocent enough, perhaps. But combined they would allow Google to know what you are doing all of the time. A truly Orwellian development that has been described by privacy campaigners as “a catastrophic corruption of consent”.
Far-fetched? Not at all.
The mobile phone industry has for years seen the potential for a rich market to develop in location-based services if only it could get its customers to agree.
Google, on the other hand, has decided to take advantage of that market and it has sought to do so by appearing to be helpful. The rationale is simple – offer a service for free and the customer will not notice that they have given a company the right to know where they are at any time.
This is clearly the reason for the inclusion of Orkut in the package. If social networking can be united with mobile, and location can be offered as a service so friends know when they are near each other, then location-based marketing can be offered to clients.
“Mobile is the key to understanding where a person is and what they have been browsing,” says Neil Andrew, head of portal advertising for the mobile phone company 3, who makes it clear 3 would only do this with the consent of their customers.
The industry’s aim is to unite information on the customer’s age, gender, web-browsing habits, home address and buying patterns with a record of their daily movements, and subject that to behavioural analysis techniques.
This provides data on you – the customer – so powerful that the companies involved can predict what you are about to do next, and then sell that information to brands interested in marketing to you.
“Being able to predict what you do next and provide you with useful things at that moment is the holy grail,” admits Shaun Gregory, the head of 02 Media.
But that means that people using such services are making one of the greatest surrenders of privacy in history – which has excited warnings from senior figures in the data-mining industry.
“What is going on at the moment is the opening of a barn door into your personal habits,” says Glyn Read, a former marketing director of SAS Institute, a leading behavioural analysis company.
“The value of understanding people’s personal information is enormous – this will allow a form of subliminal advertising to develop,” says Read, adding: “We are at the tip of an iceberg of what is possible. The real worry comes when governments start to demand access to this data.”
Read’s comments are confirmed by his former company. “We have been working with all of the big banks and with the mobile industry on what can be achieved from mobile data,” says Laurie Miles, head of analytics for SAS UK. “We can also collect data from people’s voices to tell whether they are lying or not, so this gives us an opportunity to bring marketing and risk together.”
Up till now, the mobile phone industry has always had that information, but data protection rules have stopped it being used because their customers have not given permission for them to do so.
Now, worried about a potential decline in revenue, the mobile industry wants to get around those rules. If we can be talked into signing up for our details to be used in mobile advertising, even if we don’t understand what that means, then Gregory’s holy grail will have been achieved.
“People do not realise the huge potential of this information for controlling our lives. We are sleepwalking into a minefield.”
According to Informa, a market analysis company, by 2013 the global market in mobile content will be worth £237bn to companies as diverse as media groups and sports manufacturers, whereas mobile advertising will only be worth £8.37bn, according to the analysts Gartner, but up until now there has been a reluctance among customers to pay for data plans.
“One of the factors driving this sudden interest has been the increasing use of mobile broadband dongles on laptops, which has seen a sharp increase in data traffic,” says Guillermo Escofet, an analyst from Informa’s mobile content and applications Intelligence Centre. “The industry is looking for something that will compensate for falling revenue from voice.”
And there are wider implications for the market. “If you look at the potential from locational advertising and the leads you can get from that then it’s larger than the content market itself. This will not be advertising as we have known it,” says Andy Bovingdon, marketing director of the mobile analytics company Bango.
Companies such as Nike and BT are already working on campaigns that will link the web and mobile services, for example providing you with routes to a sports event, help with parking, where you can eat and even sponsor a film for the children to watch on the way home. Blick, a UK mobile company, is already offering free airtime to those aged between 14 and 25 in return for signing up for advertising.
While the mobile industry and Google are adamant nothing can happen without the customer’s permission, users may not realise what they are agreeing to. If you sign up for any Google services, for instance, you are unlikely to realise you are giving permission for all of your data to be used for marketing.
Google Latitude, for example, states that agreement to use the service means you are prepared to share your location with the people in your address book as well as Google, although Google states “it is not possible at the moment for us to access information from that program”.
The company continues: “Our terms and conditions do say we are allowed to use your information to provide you with services but there are practical considerations over whether we could do that with locational information. Our view is that we can use information to provide the services that you want.”
Giving them Latitude
Google’s terms and conditions do not state directly how they will use your data, but instead direct you to a website. The company says: “We need to be accurate but rather than have a huge amount of detail on privacy and our use of user data we have put that on a separate page. There is a clear link from our home page to our privacy page.” However, when we tried the link it was not active, and had to be cut and pasted into a browser.
Hidden-away small print has drawn criticism from the Information Commissioner’s Office. “We have launched a ‘small print, big print’ campaign to encourage companies to make it clear to people what they are signing up for,” says a spokesman. “While what is happening at the moment may not be good practice, people are technically consenting.”
Google says it tries “to make it clear in all cases what we are doing with a specific program. Our policy is always that people should opt into the services we offer.”
But this position is not good enough for the campaign group Privacy International, which is planning to raise the matter with MPs next week. “This is a catastrophic corruption of consent. People are being told that they are signing up for marketing when in fact they are being opted into a massive surveillance strategy,” says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International.
SAS’s Read goes even further: “People do not realise the huge potential of this information for controlling our lives. We are sleepwalking into a minefield.”
Published in The Guardian – 2nd of April 2009