(No. 6 in The Prisoner, ITC 1967-1968)

In the UK, Internet service providers must now keep records of emails and online phone calls under controversial new government regulations which came into force this week.

In the internet age, does our right, as citizens of a ‘free’ society, to enjoy privacy inevitably conflict with the responsibility of governments to keep us secure and with the objectives of marketers to sell us products and services?

As internet marketers, we have an ever growing arsenal of analytics tools available to monitor and study visitors’ behaviour on our site, where they came from and at what point we lose them. Behavioural targeting offers the ‘silver bullet’ of directing our message with minimum wastage.

As consumers, we are increasingly leaving a trail of internet footprints revealing much about our online habits and thus about ourselves. Should this worry us?

What will be the end-result of this growing lack of privacy? What happens when everything we do is monitored and recorded?

In 1949, English novelist George Orwell published his most famous novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The nightmarish vision of a society controlled by a totalitarian regime which monitors every citizen 24/7 and consequently knows everything about them has given the English language several phrases, including ‘Room 101’ (the worst place in the world) the ‘Thought Police’ and most memorably ‘Big Brother is Watching You’.

1984 has come and gone but 25 years later, many fear that much of this ‘Orwellian vision’ is coming true. The Government and ‘Big Business’ know more about us than ever before. The internet revolution has further complicated the complex set of issues surrounding the collection and manipulation of personal data about individual citizens by Government and corporations.

Most of us accept CCTV cameras as a necessary evil since we believe they will protect us from crime (or because we don’t really think about it!). But how much solid evidence is there that CCTV has brought about changes in the way that criminals behave i.e. that it has, in fact, made people more secure or safe? And what is the cost? We are being watched and potentially permanently recorded when we go shopping, park our car, wait for a train. Again, is this a price we are happy to pay?

Does the British Government need ID cards to combat terrorism? Many would suggest that those capable of coordinating a terrorist attack in the UK re not going to be defeated by ID cards. They would be able to obtain fraudulent ID. And what of the effect on the privacy of the rest of us, who are no threat to the security of The Realm i.e. people who won’t buy or fraudulently obtain a card? Wired.co.uk reports that the British Police have identified a number of children at risk of being ‘radicalised’ and presumably of becoming terrorists. So what action is it reasonable to take against or ‘to help’ them?

Some would say that the only way of preventing all terrorism, or all child abuse, is to create a society where no-one can ‘get away’ with anything. And in that scenario we would all be living in a prison i.e. we’d be back to Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Cory Doctorow, the author and ‘electronic freedom frontier man’, maintains there is a false hope in these scenaria. “You can’t get to the guilty by persecuting the innocent.”

There is a real danger that in today’s digital society both authorities and brands may be accumulating increasing quantities of data for which there is no practical use; i.e. we are collecting it out of habit, or just because we can.

Meanwhile, Google is developing new mapping/ geographical imaging/ location-based products. They seek to be the most comprehensive search engine and reference source, so that their revenue stream continues. The more people use these tools, the more people are drawn to Google, which is good for business. They are already inevitably coming up against privacy issues, especially with Street View and Latitude.

So what does all this mean for internet marketers?

In my experience, most consumers will happily share a certain amount of personal data so long as they are fully and clearly informed how it will be used and stored, and they can see a benefit to them in providing it.

This of course depends on the context, whether they TRUST the brand/ company and whether they believe the company has a valid reason for requesting the information.

In today’s digital economy, marketers must recognize that the consumer is in the driving seat… it should be more about making sure that the information on a product is accurate and available when required, than trying to sell people stuff via old-school interruptive techniques. As soon as a company asks for contact information, people get suspicious – indeed there are websites out there designed to help you avoid revealing your true identity or email to companies.

These are not easy issues.

Companies need to be respectful of the privacy of their customers, and avoid asking them to register unless they are offering the customer something of tangible value in return – more than a stream of product information. For example, if a hayfever remedy brand sets up a support group for people with hayfever and provides high-quality unique content on a dedicated website, that would be a good use of people’s details, whereas collecting emails to send monthly promotions for their latest product might not (and indeed is likely to be counter-productive). Increasingly the majority of consumers are internet-savvy and are prepared to trade data for added value (e.g. exclusive content or special offers); they just require a sufficient incentive.

As marketers have increasingly powerful targeting techniques at their disposal, TRUST becomes even more important. Trust is difficult to earn and easily lost. Privacy concerns are very real and brands need to understand and respect them.

As we know, the internet has already changed the world; and it’s not done yet.