I just finished smearing cream cheese all over today’s New York Time’s front page story about how the U.K. company Cambridge Analytica filched 50 million Facebook accounts to fuel its data profiling engine for the Trump campaign and other Republican races over the past few years. It was spellbinding and infuriating at the same time, making for my best outraged breakfast in weeks.
Data services like Cambridge Analytica aren’t new, they’re usually just another pollster with a black box algorithm and some intimations that they have a pipeline to the source of the good data that others don’t. At the 2010 CES I was pitched hard by two companies who shall go unnamed but who both claimed to have full data feeds from either Google, Facebook’s “social graph” and a full record of every tweet ever twitted. They were selling their services to digital marketers such as myself to drive campaign development, media planning, and Big Data voodoo psychographic persona profiling. The one that said they had a full database of every tweet ever sent was applying some cockamamie sentiment analysis that could determine the difference between a teenager calling a Toyota Corolla “a sick ride” and a pissed off commuter calling the same car “a sick POS.” Another made it sound like they were kinda, sorta a Google portfolio company with Google investments and permission to get really deep into the good stuff. Neither of those two companies made a shred of sense so I begged off and went back to my sore feet and sense of wonder by the porn stars trying to crash the hospitality lounge Lenovo set up in the Bellagio across from the AVN Awards.
I walked away feeling very creeped out by those early social analysis firms’ claims of having a “special” relationship with the Big Three in social networking and search. For all I know they were only scraping profiles and copying tweets, and I doubt any of them had a true backdoor into Google’s search records John Battelle wrote presciently in 2003 prior to publishing his book about Google, “The Search” — that Sergey and Larry have long been sitting on the world’s most exhaustive “database of intentions” but don’t pimp it out because, well, because Google’s motto is “don’t be Evil.”
Andy Kessler told me in 1995 as I was figuring out the business plan for Forbes.com that the true currency of the Internet wasn’t goiing to be cash based — purchases, subscriptions, etc. — but informational. I wasn’t sharp enough to fully grok his point, but in essence he correctly called that true source of value coming from information as users like you and me were persuaded to part with our personal details in exchange for some free value.
Dries Buytaert, who invented the open source CMS, Drupal, also called it a couple years ago when he said there was no way for a content brand like the New York Times to beat the power of the Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft profile given the immense amount of data they were accumulated on their users’ activities.
“Traditional retailers like RadioShack and Barnes & Noble were great “content platforms”; they have millions of products on shelves across thousands of physical stores. Amazon disrupted them by moving online, and Amazon was able to build an even better content platform with many more products. In addition, the internet enabled the creation of “user platforms”. Amazon is a great user platform as it knows the interests of the 250 million customers it has on file; it uses that customer information to recommend products to buy. Amazon built a great content and user platform.”
To read this morning, with a mouthful of bagel , that a Cambridge Analytica researcher was able to weasel Facebook into handing over the intimate details of 50 million people by fibbing and claiming the data was for an academic study would be jaw dropping were it not for Facebook’s unbroken record of ham-fisted actions and policies regarding its users’ data, the same reason I avoid it like the network despite its ubiquity.
“Get over it, you have no privacy” may be the cynical creed of this brave new world, but I have to imagine, given the throbbing tenor of the headlines (today’s Times story checks off all the good keywords of the current news cycle including “Robert Mueller” “Donald Trump” “Julian Assange” “Steve Bannion” and of course the world’s foremost kleptocratic state:, “Russia“) and on the back of Equifax screwing the pooch last summer by forgetting to patch its Apache code, that we’re getting closer to the big pullback in Internet confidence by the consumers of the world that was predicted by the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Global Institute over five years ago.
It’s shaping up to be a banner year for a privacy revolt. Cambridge Analytica is heading to the mattresses just the EU’s new consumer privacy regulations — GDPR — is going into effect. The EU has a record of passing the most stringent consumer privacy regulations and any company with global reach is going to have to snap to and toe the line or face a lot of flights to Strasbourg or The Hague to face the music. After all, half of Europe lived in a snoop state with the Stasi listening into everything, so when their government tells Google an individual has a right to be forgotten, you can bet that person is going to be forgotten or Google isn’t going to sell many ads in Germany or France.
I’ll make some far fetched and wishful predictions that a few things could happen:
- Digital marketers are going to think long and hard before asking for a prospect or customer to share personal information. Database marketing is going to get some serious scrutiny from their general counsel and Chief Risk Officer. The entire martech stack is getting a full colonoscopy right now before GDPR kicks in less than six weeks from today.
- Companies in the martech and data analytics space are going to fall all over themselves to sell those same marketers some sort of “put the consumer in control” tools so data pigs with their first, second and third party data can begin to look like white hats. I can write the taglines now: “Earn Customer Trust By Putting Them Control of Their Data.”
- Forget Big Data, the next market is going to be for tools that let consumers own and manage their info, so they can be in control of their data. The only people to do so will be tin foil hat-types like my step father who used to call Microsoft tech support because he thought they were responsible for scam spam from the Prince of Cameroon who needed his banking details to save his country’s treasury.
- Say hello to the beginnings of the “Big Reverse.” You know — “when banks compete for your business you win?” The dream of killing advertising and marketing and turning the tables so when I need a new car I can somehow let all the dealers know I’m looking for a really sick SUV with 5 mpg and get bids back like Buddy Cianci with snowplowing contracts in Providence.
- Digital and Tivo killed interruption-based/ shotgun marketing. Digital came along and the best the marketing world could come up with were ignorant retargeting ads that chase us around to buy the shoes we bought the time they planted a tracking cookie under our bumpers to follow us around like total creeps. If that’s the best they can do with my shoe size, credit card number, my time zone, gender, and penchant for pictures of squirrels eating pizza, then they are cavemen with stone axes claiming to be “data-driven” marketers.
- The ineptitude of the hundreds of corporations and governments who have had to issues contrite “oops, we lost your social security number, here’s a free credit report” statements are going to have to face up to a new world where hoovering up birthdays and zipcodes and astrological signs isn’t permitted, and the Cluetrain-driven vision of Doc Searls and Project VRM is going to become the new normal very very soon.
- Say goodbye to lead gen and the interrupted afternoons when “Business Development Representatives” will cold call you because you were naive enough to share your actual name and phone number in exchange for a white paper on “Harnessing Machine Learning to Drive Customer Digital Experience Delight“
Winter is coming for the data-pigs of the world. The conspiracy theorists and preppers are going to take Cambridge Analytica, the Illuminati, Rootin’ Tootin Putin and the Barnum & Trump White House look like The Rapture. Breach a few more Equifaxes, Targets, and Ashley Madisons and people, even the “sheeple” are going to get wise to the fact that it’s not just their browser history that could embarrass them into pulling the plug.