Freedom vs. Tracking

In The Mobile Customer as Data vs. Customer Data, Chuck Martin in MediaPost‘s Mobile Shop Talk says this:

The world of data tracking for mobile commerce is getting much more precise.

The phone knows where the phone goes, as we all know. And that knowledge can be used to help provide better services to those carrying them.

Any driver using Google Navigation, for example, gets the benefit of other phones being tracked to identify bottlenecks on roads ahead. The next step was for Navigation to automatically re-route your trip to avoid the traffic jam, so the benefit became seamless.

The tracking of phones at retail also is being used in efforts to provide a better shopping experience.

In these cases, the value comes from the data about the phone being tracked, not information about the person.

This is about the use of customers as data rather than data about the customer.

This data about phone movements already is being used at hundreds of stores ranging from small mom-and-pop shops to national chains and shopping centers.

He goes on to talk about Euclid, “a three-year-old California company that likens what it does to Google analytics but for the physical world.” And he explains what they do:

Rather than tracking phones by apps, sign-ins, GPS or cell tower, Euclid installs sensors at stores to capture MAC addresses, which are part of every smartphone.

The company doesn’t capture any information about the person, just the identification of smartphones that are on with Wi-Fi enabled.

The idea is to map shopper traffic and analyze how stores can become more effective. The large volume of aggregated data of phone traffic patterns is what provides the value.

Here is what I put in the comments below (with paragraph breaks and links added):

I am a customer. I am not data. I do not wish to yield personal data, even if anonymized, to anybody other than those with whom I have a fully consenting, non-coercive and respectful relationship.

I do not wish to receive offers as a matter of course, even if machines following me guess those offers might might be relevant — especially since what I am doing most of the time is not shopping.

I also don’t wish to have a “better experience” with advertising inundation, especially if the “experience” is “delivered” to me rather than something I have for myself.

Familiar with Trader Joes? People love them. Know why? They do none of this tracking jive. They just talk, as human beings, to customers. There’s no way to automate that, and they save the overhead of marketing automation as well.

Now think of the “mobile experience” we call driving a car, or riding a bike. Our phones need to be the same: fully ours. Not tracking devices.

I know mine is a voice in the wilderness here, but I’m not alone. It’s not for no reason that the most popular browser add-ons are ad and tracking blockers. That’s the market talking. Marketers need to listen.

In a commencement speech this past May, former presidential speechwriter @JonLovett says this (around 14:30): I believe we may have reached peak bullshit.

He continues: I believe those who push back against the noise and the nonsense, those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government, will be rewarded. And that we are at the beginning of something important. He also pushes back on what he calls “a process that is inauthentic.” (Here’s a transcript.)

Here’s what’s real: For whatever reasons, we blew it by not building browsers to be cars and bikes in the first place. Same with smartphones and tablets. We gave wonderful powers to users, but greater powers to companies that would rather track us than respect us, who would rather “deliver”us the “experience” they want us to have than equip us to operate as fully human beings in the world — beings with independence and agency, able to engage in our own ways, and on our own terms.

So, what we’ve got now, nice as it is in many ways, is a feudal system. Not real freedom.

It’s a feudal system run by advertising money, and it is worse than broken: it looks to its masters like it isn’t working well enough. Those masters include lots of good people trying to do the Right Things. But they aren’t listening, because they are too busy talking to each other. The whole marketing ecosystem is an echo chamber now. And we, the users and customers of the world, are not in it, except as magnets for tracking beacons and MAC addresses sold to marketing mills.

There is now a line in the sand. On one side is industrial control of human beings, and systems that “allow” degrees of freedom. On the other side is freedom itself. On that side also lies the truly free marketplace.

Here’s a bet. A lot more money will be made equipping individual human beings with means for enjoying full agency than there is today in “delivering” better sales “experiences” to them through browsers and phones that aren’t really theirs at all.

And here’s betting we’ll get better social effects too: ones that arise from freedom of association in an open world, rather than inside giant mills built for selling us to advertisers.


  1. Tom Foremski

    Doc, good points but lets not complicate matters with references to “feudalism” which it is not.

    If our phones are in service to the powers of commerce then let them pay for the phones, and our computers while they are at it.

    At least the big brother of commerce just wants to sell us something, such as a pizza, it’s mundane but harmless, although it is fattening.

    The Big Brother of government wants to judge us and predict our nefarious behaviors, which is also not feudalism but much more worrisome.

  2. Doc Searls

    Hi Tom.

    Did you read Bruce Schneier’s piece at the “feudal” link above? Please do if you haven’t.

    I’m not talking about commerce. Nor do I believe the free and open Internet is a grace of the advertising business.

    I’m talking about how the tools we use to travel about the Web, and interact over it, are not general purpose ones that are fully ours. And because of that we lack full agency.

    A hammer in your hand is an extension of you and your senses. Your self dwells in that tool. It is fully yours. It is not also held by Sears or whatever company made or sold it to you. Same with your car, or your bike. When you speak of “my fender,” “my dashboard,” “my tire,” those things are in a real sense part of you. Your senses dwell in them as you operate them expertly. True tools, true personal vehicles, belong to their operators the full sense. They also give the operator a sense of where their boundaries are in the world, of private and public spaces.

    We assume, when we go into a store, that we may be watched, but not that somebody will look inside our clothes, or plant tracking beacons on us when we leave, to give us a “better experience” down the road. That would be rude and wrong. But it is the norm today in the commercial world online.

    Just that it’s normative, however, does not make it right.

    Google’s browser tracks me. Mozilla is struggling to not to have its browser track me. Apple’s phone tracks me. Android is built to track me. The results of that tracking are hard to sense clearly. What one does sense is that agency is not fully ours, but something only partially “allowed” by parties that let us use tools that mostly serve them and not us.

    In fact the advertising industry sucks at being big brother, which is one reason they are more annoying than frightening. But they truly believe the Web is a commercial space that they run. It’s owned property we get to gaddy about freely in exchange for being watched and having ads pushed at us. They do not see the Net as an open field in which customers ought to have full control of the tools they use. And they have good reason to believe that. Browsers since shortly after the invention of the cookie became things that servers ran, far more than clients. The power asymmetry we have today was baked in early and is now so normative that few of us can think outside its box. In fact that box is very much like a castle with high walls.

    Think about it. Google is a walled garden. Facebook is a walled garden. Amazon is a walled garden. Apple and its cloud are walled gardens. Nice places, but not open marketplaces.

    If we let the advertisers pay for everything, the Web is theirs. As it is, our frogs are almost fully boiled already. But I have faith that at some point soon we’ll grow tired of a system that actually doesn’t work very well, even if it’s “free” for the user. (What are the CTRs today, even with all the “big data” analytics? 1%? And how many of those clicks are fraud? I’ve seen numbers from sources I trust, but who NDA’d me. I’ll just say they are scary.)

    The advertising ecosystem today is mostly fancy spam. The main differences between it and spam are that adtech is better rationalized, comes from nicer people and is harder to ignore.

  3. William

    To call it feudalism is not to overstate it. What we have today is a form of lawful servitude, with no prospect of living outside the system of accepting unacceptable Ts&Cs, accepting surveillance as precondition for essential services, and no enforceable rights in our own data, clickstream, location history etc.

    We the vagrant serfs have nowhere to hide our precious collection of livestock. The barons say “hey we’ve got castles. And look how safe they are! Look at the big lock on the front gate. Leave your chickens and goats in my castle” So we do, and everyone in the castle has their way with them. Feudalism is a pretty good word for it.

    We need secure lockups or cottages for the nomadic serfs, of course. With the same sort of big fat lock on the front gate, to which the combination is set by the individual and known only to the individual. Then we can start the process of emancipation.

  4. Thea Grace Morgan

    An allergy to the term feudalism isn’t helpful, especially since that term so aptly describes what is going on. I grew up in a semi-feudal society, in Peru, and watched the majority being trodden down on a daily basis. Now I’m experiencing something similar: every time I use my phone, post a comment, tweet my song, I am aware of the fact that if someone isn’t watching now, they will be able to retrace my every step, opinion, preference, search, and use it for their ends in the future. That those ends are currently relatively benign is not the point, people. THE INTERNET IS FOREVER. How easy to develop algorithms that will predict–based on probabilities derived from crunching big data–what I have done or will do next. As it stands, anything we do online can be ripped from its context and used. How? ANYway. To damage our credibility. To sully our reputations. In extreme cases, as circumstantial evidence to convict us of a crime. I know that sounds paranoid, but unless we start calling a Feudal and Feudal, we’ll never address the real political issues at stake here.

  5. Doc Searls

    Thanks, William and Thea. Agreed.

  6. Kevin Cox

    Knowing that I am being watched changes my behaviour. Knowing that these words are now “immortalised” changes what I write. We have almost daily reminders of what that means when we view TV footage of North Korea.

    The surveillance State is not a place you want to be and yet we are making industrialised society such places all in the name of so-called free commerce.

    We can solve this problem by taking the profit out of tracking and surveillance. We do this by building systems where businesses that protect and perserve privacy gain a competitive advantage.

    The businesses that are currently making money out of surveillance, by force feed us with information, will change their behaviour if they become more profitable by stopping surveillance and responding to our requests.

    This means that people in the VRM space need to be thinking of ways to make businesses more profitable.

    Will the work that we do make more money for businesses or is it just another cost?

    Will the work that we do make life for customers simpler and easier or does it make it harder?

    VRM can make our lives simpler and can reduce business costs if, paradoxically, we make it easier for each of us to freely give businesses relevant information.

  7. John S. James

    Here is one kind of problem that can happen when people don’t control their own identities — and it certainly got the user’s attention. I heard this example secondhand and hope to get more information.

    Someone forgot his YouTube password that proved he was 18, so to show a video to a friend he opened a new account for a few minutes, showed the video, then deleted the new account. He chose an off-color name for this account, and apparently used a work email address to open the temporary account. A month later he heard from his management that people were offended by the off-color name, which somehow went out associated with him after he had deleted it, though he never intended to use or share that name with anyone.

    He’s not a computer expert, and of course could have done better. The larger problem is that most people think of “their” account as theirs, when it isn’t — and think that deleting their account makes it go away, when often it doesn’t. Apparently his temporary account name got picked up in databases as a new mark to market to, somehow associated with him — and that information persisted there after it was no longer useful and should have been removed.

    If he had by default controlled his own identity instead of letting YouTube etc. control it, the whole thing would never have happened.

    This sort of problem must be occurring widely. At some point users, customers, and others will rebel.

  8. Lionel

    Will Smith, Euclid’s CEO, posted an apologetic for his products on July 15th. He writes:

    “Physical retail can use analytics to improve store layouts, offer better promotions and sales, raise marketing ROI, even tune staffing levels to give customers a better experience. And they can do it with 100% respect for customer privacy.”

    Think about that. Tracking customer movements with very difficult opt-out is 100% respect. Not 90%, or 80%.

    I request that Will Smith’s clever technology team implement a one click opt-out. Better yet, a one-click opt-in–that would be a step towards 99.999% respect of privacy.

  9. Doc Searls

    Thanks, Lionel, John and Kevin. All great stuff. We need to press forward on fixing all this, from the outside.

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