Personalized digital experiences, but at what price?

Pressure on brands to create personalized experiences has led to an age of 'surveillance capitalism'.
29 March 2019

Nest Secure could potentially ‘spy’ on its owners. Source: Shutterstock

As consumers, many of us are a little guilty of behaving like small children online. If we don’t get what we want within a couple of clicks or swipes, we leave the site promising never to return. Everything from our newsfeeds to our entertainment choices is deeply personalized to feed our insatiable thirst for instant gratification. Businesses are rising to the challenge, but in many cases, they cannot seem to win.

Gartner recently warned brands that fail to take one-to-one personalization seriously would result in losing 38 percent of their customers. It’s easy to see why businesses are desperately trying to meet the unrealistic demands of their customers and create digital experiences across every conceivable device. But delivering the wow factor requires brands to walk a very fine line which can quickly appear intrusive and borderline creepy.

The suggestion of a future purchase based on your browsing history has the potential to delight and horrify customers in equal measure. However, a closer look under the hood of many of the world’s biggest tech companies reveals some uncomfortable observations. By hoovering up all our behavioral data, it makes it much easier to anticipate and modify our next actions for profit.

According to Shoshana Zuboff, we are currently living in the age of surveillance capitalism. The majority of phone apps and websites that we use every day such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Google are using algorithms to show you, not what you want to see, but what the tech companies want you to view to keep you on their platform and buying more things that you want, but not necessarily need.

For the most part, we seldom think about how our online actions are carefully examined by machines looking to establish patterns and correlations that will enable its human master to predict our next move to influence or even change our behavior. By continuously learning from every interaction, tech companies are primarily searching for vulnerabilities in our psychology and hack our brains to control our next move.

There are already examples of employers providing their staff with free wearable Fitbit devices. Upon closer inspection, the data from the devices can be sent to insurers who will attempt to use the data to encourage you to change your behavior. With 5G connections on the horizon, it’s only a matter of time many more cars will also be sending live data back to a faceless data hub too.

Initially, it all sounds innocent enough, until you understand that your own data could be used against you to change your behavior so that a company can reduce costs and increase profits. The waters quickly become incredibly murky and are leaving many to question if they have any idea of just how much of our data is being captured and shared?

Earlier this year, owners of the Nest Secure were informed that their device would soon support the voice-activated Google Assistant service. The only problem with the announcement is that nobody knew that there was a microphone inside the device and it wasn’t mentioned in the original description.

Ironically, a Nest Secure was sold to offer users with self-protection. The reality was that it had the hidden capability to spy on its owners. It’s difficult to remember a time before Googling anything and everything online. Maybe the joke was on us all along, and it was Google that has been searching us rather than the other way around.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal woke many up to the fact that their personal data is being collected and sold to the highest bidder. Nobody knows for sure if our microphones and cameras can be accessed or if we are nervously flirting with the tin-foil hat brigade. There is greater awareness around the digital footprints that we are leaving behind.

However, many people remain blissfully unaware that almost every online click, swipe, voice command and comment we leave online is being recorded, analyzed and made available for access to invisible parties. Politicians all over the world are also beginning to take aim at tech companies. In the UK, Deputy Labour leader, Tom Watson said that “Too many platforms choose ad sales over accuracy, clickbait over credibility,” and went on to label offenders as “digital gangsters.”

Nobody will shed a tear of over the eradication of spam and irrelevant marketing messages. But is our privacy a price worth paying for the privilege? The answer will be entirely subjective and further proof that the reality is that personalization is not for everyone. But spare a thought for businesses that cannot seem to win.

Brands are expected to meet customer demands across multiple touchpoints and devices. Businesses are also expected to embrace emerging tech trends such as voice search. But, on their quest to obtain a greater understanding of their audience, they also run the risk of appearing creepy.  It would seem that the fierce debate around surveillance capitalism is only just getting started.