by Jason Stewart (@HaveYouHeard_SA) Privacy is the “state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people”, or “being free from public attention”, according to the Oxford Dictionary. Less than a decade ago, privacy was easy to achieve: we simply shut the door or walked away from the conversation. Not so today.

Thousands of data points

Today, we voluntarily keep a device close at hand that can watch us, listen to us and track us, even during what should be our most-private moments (around 75% of people scroll on their phones while on the toilet, and almost all people have their phones within a few feet of them while having sex). Nor do we really know what data’s being collected because the big tech companies won’t tell us or show us.

What we do know is that it can run into thousands of different data points per person and, as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning evolves, the companies that’ve collected that data will be able to do much more with it.

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When this data is used to enhance the personalised service we get and boosts convenience, many are prepared to pooh-pooh those who warn about the risks. This is because humans struggle to perceive true threats; we’re pretty much like the frog in the pot of water and it’s only now passing lukewarm.


Paranoid? Maybe not.

At the beginning of 2020, ClearView AI was declared a major threat to personal privacy. The company provided software to almost 500 law enforcement agencies, predominantly in North America. It was claimed that these agencies solved cold cases in just 20 seconds just by trawling the internet with facial-recognition software. The same software can be used by criminals, and this is why there are now class-action lawsuits against the company.

At least two years prior to Clearview AI, an opensource tool called Social Mapper trawled eight different social media platforms and pulled together every piece of content that had your face and identity attached to it. Oh, and there was also Face Swap in 2018 (whether you believe the conspiracy theories or not, there was an enormous amount of data uploaded voluntarily onto servers across the world).

Then there’s cheaply accessible software that allows you to stealthily spy on people (so long as you manually upload a file onto their phone). For US$40 per month, you can see every click, swipe and instant message, along with live access to someone’s camera and microphone. On any of their devices, such as the smart food processor, Siri and smart fridge. The explosion of 5G and IoT devices (internet of thing appliances that generate data) and new services like driverless cars are all possible because of more connectivity — which means more data storing and more sharing, linked to each individual.

Impact on our psychology

The impact this has on our psychology is that it changes how we feel about what we’re doing. It makes us hypervigilant and modifies our behaviour. It takes away the ability to freely explore, express or try. It means someone is always watching and recording and whatever we do or say can be used against us in the court of public opinion. So, we’d better be careful and stay in our box.

Anonymity will soon be a highly sought-after state. Even before the covid-19 pandemic, people were wearing masks in public, specifically activists in countries with authoritarian governments such as Hong Kong. The Digital Emancipation movement is gaining momentum; children are suing their parents for posting photographs of them online.

Designers, too, have invented ways to avoid surveillance and keep data private. This has seen the public’s fear and concern permeate pop culture. Take this puffer jacket from The Arrivals that has a Faraday pocket made from a blend of polyester, copper and nickel, for example. This combination blocks radio-frequency identification (RFID), near field communication (NFC), electromagnetic fields (EMR and EMF) and radiation signals — all the methods of delivery to mobile phones for push notifications, GPS tracking, text messages, and more.

In 2019, Polish designer Ewa Nowak launched a jewellery range, Incognito, aimed at thwarting facial recognition technologies and which has proved successful at beating Facebook’s DeepFace algorithm.

Accessories for the Paranoid, too, abound: devices that may be hooked onto technology in the home and feed it mis-information. One slots over a computer webcam and feeds it fake images, while another links to Amazon’s Alexa and plays it white noise or feeds it distracting fake tasks.

Advice for brands

  1. More and more consumers will be giving sales to brands which respect their data, and which provide them with anonymity and autonomy
  2. Provide safe spaces for consumers
  3. As this issue grows in concern, it also offers brands opportunities to make grandiose statements; however, brands need to be hypervigilant about how they use people’s data
  4. Brands which anticipate and act upon the privacy concerns of consumers, rather than ‘taking advantage’ of privacy loopholes, will gain public affection
    1. Have an easily accessible communique on your websites; be open about what public information you use and how you attain it
    2. Offer people easy-to-use opt-out privacy options when using your platforms
    3. Make it your ‘thing’ that you do not take advantage of users’ private data.

See also


Jason StewartJason Stewart is co-founder of HaveYouHeard (@HaveYouHeard_SA), a full-service agency. Zeitgeist of Now, his new column on MarkLives, is inspired by the agency’s proprietary tool developed to understand the invisible but powerful forces that influence people, products, culture and societies. If we appreciate these, he argues, we become more-effective marketers.

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