Digital Shoreditch 2013: Google could do "unspeakably evil things" with big data

This week’s Digital Shoreditch festival is a distinct product of its trendy East London surroundings, where the capital’s so-called Tech City – ‘Silicon Roundabout’ and all – continues to grow. The visitors are young and brashly dressed, the presentations are bright and snappy, frequently referencing popular culture, and even Tuesday’s programme kicked off fashionably late as ITProPortal joined the hordes for day two of the event.

But reminding us that not all modern tech oozes chic this morning was OgilvyOne’s big data expert Matthew Bayfield, who spoke about the privacy implications of data-handling, and Google's ability to abuse our personal information in the making of ultra-intelligent modern software.

While the digital agency’s Head of Data Practice strongly praised the innovation behind services like Google Now, and its ability to provide him with directions, weather reports and much more when he traveled all over the world, he also highlighted how it required “taking more and more of my data; it’s my stuff.”

Because of GPS tracking on our mobile phones, Bayfield noted how, “Over 90 per cent of the UK population is being known exactly where they are, and when they are there.” As a result, he said “it’s quite easy to slip into this Orwellian dystopia, this Big Brother view of the world where we’re being tracked.”

Only too aware of the damage its omnipresence and data-hoarding could inflict on its reputation, one of Google’s company mantras is the simple, ‘Don’t be evil’. But a suspicious Bayfield said, “Frankly, in my view, this just serves as a reminder that they could do unspeakably evil things if they chose - but because they’re choosing not to, we should be grateful?”

He went on to cite Microsoft’s advertising campaign for Internet Explorer this year, and how its own slogan, ‘Your Privacy is Our Priority’, is “a direct challenge to Google.” Going forward, Bayfield argues that a policy of respecting user data and clearly communicating how it is being used will determine the overall popularity and success of companies in years to come.

“My guess is that the brands that will win in the future are the ones that are most open and transparent with their consumers about the information they hold. There is a strong temptation in marketing to use data for an unfair advantage. It’s something we find out about someone so we can leverage you, change your behaviour and make you do stuff. Given the nature of the information we’re now getting our hands on, that doesn’t seem appropriate anymore.

"It’s much more about empowering and enabling people to see the information you [brands] are holding and put them in charge of what they do with it.”

A privacy storm has also been brewing around Google Glass, the firm's wearable tech sensation which, amid widespread condemnation for its potential to abuse people's privacy, has now caused concern among members of Congress in the US.