Wired Conference: Where Privacy Meets Practicality

The Wired Conference held in London’s East End showcased the very best of the here and now with some excellent stand-out presentations. For example, 23andme demonstrated how your DNA can be analysed and broken down to provide your ancestry, all for the lowly sum of $100. With this analysis, you can share your results with 750,000 other users and help take part in over 230 studies. Then there was the mind-bending Quantum Computing from D-Wave. It can compute tasks on an incredible scale, solving some of the most complex calculations in a matter of seconds versus a normal computer, which would have taken over a thousand years to do the exact same task. Taking a different tone was the admirable Yulia Marushevska, who described the suffering her country Ukraine has been through in recent times. Initially her voice was heard through a video on YouTube, which so far has over 8 million views. Whilst these were the stand-out speeches, perhaps the most intriguing came from Nico Sell of r00tz Asylum, who was advocating privacy online and how the responsibility lies with us, not with the companies.

Privacy in the digital world

You probably haven’t heard of Nico Sell. She comes on stage wearing shades (presumably to ensure she has greater protection from cameras so as to hide her identity) and begins a passionate speech about privacy. She’s not on Twitter or Instagram. In fact, her name probably isn’t Nico at all. She explains how easy it is to teach your kids to hack your phone, hack your webcam and listen in on your calls. As she puts, “those personal sexts you send your boyfriend are for everyone to see”. The “internet is forever” she states. You may have heard of a little app called Wickr, which is creating huge waves across the industry. Nico is the CEO of this app. It looks to take on the behemoth that is WhatsApp, with the key difference being that messages will self-destruct, vanishing forever. Protecting your data is one way of fighting back against a data mining industry that is ready to sell your data to make big bucks. And this most certainly struck a chord with me. Working in the advertising industry, I have made decisions every single day, using millions of pounds of my clients’ money based on careful and considered insight. Insights that I suspect Nico would rather us not have.

Without question there is a strong case regarding our privacy. Whilst at times the speech felt like paranoia, the recent Snapchat third party hack provides complete credence to her argument. What we believe to be safe can in fact be completely open to attack. However, the question I have is, “do we actually care?” I found something rather fascinating happen after Nico’s speech. The conference emptied for lunch and it was at this point attendees queued in their hundreds to grab a free DNA kit from 23andme. Oh the irony. Nearly everyone was willing to give up every segment about their personal information to an International company and have their purest detail exist in cyberspace forever more, no less than 5 minutes after Nico’s point about online privacy.

Maybe then it’s the thought of new technologies that frighten us, the unknown of what it can do. Rarely does the reality match this fear. When mobiles phones were first invented, the fear amongst many was how terrorists could co-ordinate attacks. Yet here we are in 2014, where more mobile phones exist in the world than there are people. Google Maps paranoia hit the big time when it launched back in 2005, with stories of burglars having a blueprint to your property from above, giving insight into breaking and entering your home. Now? Google Maps has arguably become a fundamental application of our digital lives, in some cases saving lives. And who can forget about CERN, the scientific laboratory that would consume planet earth into a black hole. Today it seems Beacons is the next scary technology that will lead us into oblivion.  

BuzzFeed recently ran two articles showing how New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had Beacons installed “secretly”. Key words that come out from the articles were “hidden”, “track movements” and “deepen the network of surveillance”. It certainly felt like scare-mongering to me. In essence, beacons are a way to push ads out. And the real reality is to incentivise consumers. Will people complain when they receive a free coffee for simply walking past Starbucks? Will people bemoan the fact when their British Airways app tells them instantly what gate they should be boarding and at what time by simply walking through Heathrow? Let’s not forget too that the app on your phone will provide an opt in/ opt out option. Either way, based on the Buzzfeed article, the beacons were removed. In my opinion this was done with a lack of true understanding of what beacon technology offers. I suspect BuzzFeed will be reviewing their cookies policy ensuring they do not track the online movements of their reader base. God forbid they sold that information to advertisers.  

Privacy and security online is indeed our responsibility. Nico is right – the internet is forever. But sometimes the scare-mongering around new technologies is not welcome. As history has shown, the masses will decide if it’s something we need. Whilst I won’t be posting my address on Facebook, I am interested into finding out what my ancestry holds. Now pass me my DNA pack…

Craig Barber, Head of Innovation & Emerging Media

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