- Part One: Privacy at the Yale Club
- The subject on the email was "Media Privacy Gang-Rape".
But he seemed sane enough. For instance, he remained good-natured when
I told him he was paranoid, especially in this paragraph:
- "I am absolutely convinced" he wrote to me,
"that televisions are already capable of acting as cameras which enable
the media industry and their clients to observe and listen to everyone
and everything within line of sight of the screen."
- What sounds more crazy than saying "I think my TV
set is watching me?" He might as well have signed his message "Napolean238@AOL.com".
But few people understand this subject, and I'm glad the man found our
website. I know how hard it is to choose the right words and anticipate
what is possible, without losing all credibility.
- For three years now, I have been studying the privacy
issues surrounding digital interactive television, and I was able to reassure
my correspondent that I hadn't heard anything about cameras when I snuck
into the Addressable Media Coalition Luncheon at the Yale Club in New York.
If those people don't know about surveillance gadgets in television sets,
- The Addressable Media Coalition (AMC) is a division of
the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), which has recently been
made a part of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), a lobbying group
for junk mailers, cold callers and market researchers. The AMC was established
to realize the dream of addressable advertising - a new way to profile
and target people based on their viewing behavior, or as it is now known,
their "telegraphics". Prominent among the Coalition's 34 members
are Nielsen Media Research, the advertising giant Young and Rubicam, WebTV,
which is owned by Microsoft, and NDS, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's
- The group I work for was not invited to join. I serve
as British Director of White Dot, a small, but nevertheless international,
campaign against television.
- I was so disorganized that day, that when I got to the
Yale Club, I didn't have business cards for my fictitious company. My suit
- "You don't have a business card?"
- "Uh, no. "
- But the young man on the door couldn't make too much
fuss. I had missed the food, and walked straight into the AMC's Privacy
Subcommittee meeting. The oak paneled room of 20 people sat quietly around
their plates of cookies and china cups of surprisingly bad coffee, listening
to a speakerphone, out of which the CEO of BeyondZ Interactive passed on
what she knew of the lobbying situation in Washington.
- She emphasized how important it was to negotiate something
at the federal level, before individual states could pass their own privacy
bills. Discussion turned to their narrow escape in California. That bill
had gone so far as to require viewers' permission before monitoring could
begin, and was only killed after intensive lobbying by Microsoft and AOL.
Everyone agreed they were lucky. State Senator Debra Bowen had been too
far ahead of the curve.
- "May I ask who you are?"
- I looked up, at Art Cohen, Senior Vice President of Advertising
and Commerce for ACTV, and Chairman of the Coalition. I recognized him
from the SpotOn promotional video he gives to advertisers.
- Zoom right in - to a little street of identical houses.
Are the happy people inside them identical as well? Oh no! They all have
different skins, different numbers of children, make different money and
want different things. Every time the old white couple with the poodle
click on their remote control, it is recorded in a database on their set-top
box. The same is true for the young black family with the Labrador. SpotOn
software gathers this data, analyses it, and sends each of them targeted
advertising or programs aimed at their unique behavior. The secret: artificial
- "See that box?" SpotOn's head of sales in Denver
asked me at a trade show, "That box can hold 64,000 bits of information
about you!" And that was just the General Instruments 2000 box, not
even the GI 5000 everyone was talking about.
- "I'm a programmer" I said, "I'm just beginning
to work with interactive TV."
- Why did I give my real name? That was so stupid. I had
asked Mr. Cohen for an interview months ago, and he had turned me down.
- "I've got to be careful about what I say,"
he told me on the phone, "because what I say could end up in a book,
and I'll be sorry about it."
- He looked at my registration form, then looked at me.
- "You're not the press are you?"
- "No" I said.
- (a long pause.) "Okay."
- I shook his hand. It was fleshy and strong, like his
face. The fashionable, narrow lens glasses made a nice contrast. He looked
- Art Cohen is very concerned about people listening in
on what he says. With the Addressable Media Coalition, he is determined
to offer a place where industry leaders can speak in confidence, agreeing
how to proceed before saying anything in public.
- "You don't want to talk to the press about any of
this," he told us over and over. "If some bad PR got out, whether
it's true or not, it might take us a year to make it up."
- Everyone nodded. They all agreed they couldn't afford
to make the same mistakes they had on the internet - rushing into a medium
they didn't control, without a strategy in place, a back-up plan, just
in case users found out about all those cookies.
- Companies who make interactive television are keen to
talk about "the coming digital revolution", hoping viewers will
forget about the one that has already happened. Interactive TV is really
a digital counter-revolution, walling in the content that viewers can see,
and handing control of their news and leisure time back to broadcasters.
- DoubleClick, the internet advertising firm, got into
big trouble when they tried to connect internet surfing data with offline
records from Abacus, a mail-order catalog company. But television service
providers won't have to improvise this way. Digital set top boxes connect
on and offline data as soon as they are installed. That is what the machine
was designed to do. A number of companies now hope to connect the commercials
you see to the products you buy using a supermarket loyalty card. There
is no end to this convenience.
- In Europe interactive TV is a big success. But the American
industry requires visionary leaders to overcome the skepticism of advertisers
and viewers. Art Cohen is running for Steve Jobs. And he might win; he
talked tough and interrupted people. He moved around the room behind the
CEOs, lost in thought one second, commanding our attention the next. We
were all impressed.
- I've interviewed dozens of executives in this industry,
on the phone, in their "homes of the future" and at conferences
on interactive TV and one-to-one marketing. These are people you will never
meet, but who will soon know a great deal about you.
- David Byrne, Senior Manager of Business Development at
Microsoft was happy to talk about the warehouse of data that is being collected
by WebTV, waiting for some future use. Other salesmen and women were young
and excited to be part of the next big thing. They weren't sure how to
handle privacy questions, but their repeated hope was in today's "media-savvy
youth". Apparently, the younger kids are, the less they worry about
- At one conference, Kirt Gunn of the advertising consultancy
Cylo had a whole room laughing when he speculated why this might be: "I
don't know whether it 's how many people read 1984 or what piece of the
puzzle it is."
- Indeed, Orwell's book is about to lose much of its rhetorical
power. The real experience of interactive television will soon take its
place. When consumers discover that their TV sets are recording what they
do in their living rooms and bedrooms, they will either stand up and demand
protection, or, conversely, they will learn to love it.
- "Big Brother," our children may laugh someday,
"Some old guy worried about that in the last century. But see - now
they record everything I do, and I can order a pizza without dialing my
- The data analysts I've met were brilliant. I couldn't
think of any use for this technology that was not already being studied
or already in development.
- Neal Muranyi of the Database Group is the man who first
coined the term "telegraphics" to describe the data you and I
will produce each evening. He has already seen how the insurance industry
could save millions of dollars:
- "Such systems would allow, say insurers to differentiate
risk-averse conservatives from high-living show-offs, and then tailor both
marketing messages and risk scoring systems accordingly."
- Pat Dade of Synergy Consulting told me about his psychographic
"value groups", people he has surveyed and interviewed until
he is able to categorize the emotions that make them act. Here he describes
how your television data will be used as a digital fingerprint, linking
you into one of them:
- "Let's say that the hypothesis is that an inner-directed
person, if they watched da-da-da, would react in such and such a way. Now
you can test that. You can test that at the end of each time, because you're
starting with the question 'Can we change or reinforce behavior based on
- Control. That's the slogan used to sell interactive television.
But what really excites these people is the way it creates experimental
conditions in the home. Your TV set will be able to show you something,
monitor how you respond, and show you something else, working on you over
time until it sees the desired behavior.
- But who nicer to push the buttons? Pat Dade spoke like
the gentle, self-help author he could so easily have been, and he had a
nice sense of humor. When I found out that he had worked on Echelon, the
US military's worldwide electronic eavesdropping system, he laughed.
- "Oh yeah" he said, "We spied on everybody."
- That's why the AMC Luncheon was such a surprise. These
guys were so hard and aggressive, like big business baddies in a cartoon
- Poor Jerome Samson, the French data analyst working for
Nielsen, was openly ridiculed for talking too long, and a running joke
about "career terminating statements" was thrown back and forth
between tough young sales reps.
- Except for Karen Lennon of BeyondZ, none of the women
dared say anything. And when some namby-pamby suggested explaining to viewers
about the unique identifier and what we did with their data, Jack Myers
of the Myers Report shot him down.
- "Listen," he said, "There really is no
such thing as privacy, unless you' re..[Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski or something.
There is no privacy. It's all public relations. It's all perception."
- At the top of the pecking order stood Art Cohen. And
he made it clear there would be no telling viewers anything:
- "Right now you're being targeted by Nielsen,"
he said, dismissively, "This is just better data. Nobody's getting
- But then, it's like he had to go on:
- "The difference is" he said, totally contradicting
himself, "this box has a unique identifier, so you're able to poll
boxes individually. The Cable Acts and things that were written years ago
don't really deal with that."
- It was then that I began to have the strangest feeling
of sympathy for Art Cohen. I began to see how much we have in common. Oh
sure, before congressmen he can play casual, and say the profiling he does
is no different from the way people know their local grocer.
- But in front of these advertisers, like Wes Booth of
Grey Advertising, or Tim Hanlon of Starcom Worldwide, who was listening
somewhere on that speakerphone, Cohen had to lay out his vision of the
coming, irrevocable change to the way human beings live. He had to predict
the unthinkable. He had to make people listen, but not in any way that
could appear, let's say, too far ahead of the curve.
- "This is going to happen" he was saying again,
"Nothing is going to stop it. The technology is so powerful! It's
not just interactivity; it's targetability and accountability. All the
data is digital."
- Would he find the right words? How do you describe a
future that already takes up your entire present, that you have studied
in the smallest detail, so that you are already living it - without sounding
- "Television is projections!" he was insisting,
"Nielsen is projections! This will be based on actual counts! .Instead
of an unreal world of projected data, we're entering a real world of actual
data, census data. That differentiates all these things from everything
that's gone before."
- What did he say? That was good. I scribbled it down.
Census data! Why didn't I think of that? I've been so hung up on the experimental
conditions thing. Cohen is a genius! That's the perfect way to describe
it. This could bring the right-wingers on board!
- Anyway, I wish my email correspondent had been there.
There's nothing like being with people who finally understand what you're
- Part Two: e-Trussed
- In the following months, I took part in the AMC's Privacy
Subcommittee Meetings. These were chaired by Karen Lennon, a very nice
woman whom I would call a privacy dove. That is, she thinks everything
will be fine as long as the consumers are told that their civil liberties
are being spit on. But both she and the privacy hawks, who were against
raising such issues in public, agreed on one thing: a privacy seal was
- The AMC have published a Privacy Guideline document about
this matter, explaining that an industry run system of self regulation
had to be in place before legislators themselves understood what interactive
TV was and how it would affect citizens' lives. The cornerstone of any
such effort is to be a new Privacy Compliance Seal, that the Coalition
hopes to announce with fanfare this Autumn. The rest of the Guideline document
is written in vague language about respect and trust, although these two
sentences do stand out:
- Such security measures will vary depending on the configuration
of the systems handling the data and the purpose of the data collected.
Financial information, medical information, VOD/PVR/viewing information
mapped to PII will require greater levels of security than anonymous information
regarding clicks, viewing or purchases.
- I suppose it is nice of them to fret over the security
of viewers' financial and medical information, but what right do they have
to all that data in the first place?
- Anyway, these meetings were held mostly by conference
call, so I will skip the witty personal observations and get right to the
issues. What follows are the matters that were important to members of
the AMC Privacy Subcommittee, the group that will be creating this new
Privacy Compliance Seal. When consumers see this seal appear on their TV
screens, reassuring them that the highest standards are being met, they
should know what went on in these meetings where the Seal was created.
- Goal: Persuade Legislators to Scrap the Cable Act An
anomaly exists between the privacy regulation of cable and satellite. The
1984 Cable Act is far stricter. Both privacy advocates and broadcasters
want to "level the playing field", except in different directions.
Members of the Coalition were specifically advised to copy language that
Cox cable had written up for their subscription contract. It was considered
a good first step towards freeing interactive TV from the Cable Act.
- Goal: Keep Legislation Away from the States It came up
a number of times that state legislatures might propose their own privacy
legislation. Debra Bowen's proposed opt-in legislation was discussed a
number of times. Repeatedly, it was agreed that if legislation was to be
changed, it was best done at the federal level, where the various media
lobbyists had more influence.
- Goal: Create a Privacy Seal Before Government Regulates
Or, as Art Cohen said, "bites us in the ass".
- One of the earliest conversations of the Privacy Subcommittee
contained a humorous moment. Everyone had been agreeing that speed was
of the essence and that the process of creating a Seal could not be allowed
to bog down. A lawyer on the call offered to take the initiative and draw
up a quick list of privacy principles.
- That's when there was a silence, followed by a bit of
- Of course he couldn't draw up such a list of privacy
principles! We hadn't sent out our Privacy Audit, asking all our member
companies what practices they already had in place! We had to ask them
what data they gathered, where it was stored, whom it was shared with,
- The Privacy Audit was every question that I, investigating
these companies, could ever want to ask. But it was more important for
the AMC's Privacy Subcommittee, because the last thing we all wanted to
do was put out rules that might "cut somebody out".
- So there is the first lesson in how you create a Privacy
Compliance Seal: Make sure it embodies the lowest common denominator of
what everyone is already doing anyway.
- Goal: Avoid Permission, Concentrate on Suitable Content
The Privacy Guideline document was written by Karen Lennon and a man named
Jim Koenig of something called the ePrivacy Group, which turns out to be
a wholly owned subsidiary of a company called Postiva. So one would assume
he is very strong on things like viewer permission.
- But in the meetings, he claimed it was not important.
He said that with education, viewers could be made to see that "suitable
content" was more important than "permission."
- In other words, if a television collects data and uses
that data to provide programming that the viewer likes, and the user doesn't
notice or sees no reason to complain, then there is no problem.
- "There is no privacy problem if content gets 100%
acceptance," said Koenig. ."If we can go towards relevance, that
is ultimately where we want to go."
- This argument is seductive, and has a lovely libertarian
ring to it.
- But think again about what he is saying. First of all,
there is such a thing as the principle of privacy. And reasonable people
can argue about where to draw lines around it. But whatever your definition,
privacy is a principle of human rights. It must be defined somewhere and
- What principle has Jim Koenig defined that the AMC can
then respect? Absolutely none.
- When he says the AMC should move away from permission
and towards "relevance", he implies that no principle is at stake
that would require a viewer's agreement. In fact, his advice to his fellow
iTV producers is not "give consumers what they want", but "do
to consumers whatever they let us get away with".
- And here is a second way that Koenig's comment betrays
his industry's disrespect for its customers:
- The viewers he is describing, who meekly accept his scrutiny,
are not told the truth about what he does in their homes, or what he will
do with the data he gathers. Every month new interactive systems are launched,
and each arrives with two sets of promotional literature: one set for the
viewers and another for the advertisers.
- Viewers are told how they will be able to order pizzas
through their TV sets, advertisers are told about psychographic marketing
and links to huge third party data services. Who would knowingly 'opt in'
to that? No one. And Jim Koenig knows it.
- Yes, iTV producers and privacy advocates share a fondness
for overblown rhetoric. But if the people in this industry refuse to be
restrained by any principle you could discuss calmly, then we on the outside
must continue to imagine that they will follow Koenig's advice, and do
whatever they want until somebody complains.
- Goal: Just Get A Birthday and ZIP Code! Now that the
Center for Digital Democracy has published its report exposing interactive
television, Ben Issacson has been very busy. He is the Executive Director
of the Addressable Media Coalition's parent body, the Association for Interactive
Media (AIM) and he has been offering himself to any news organization covering
the story, rushing to assure viewers at home that nothing is wrong.
- "The industry plans are to collect aggregate information
for advertising," he told WIRED magazine, "but not to collect
information without user knowledge and consent."
- Notice his emphasis on the word aggregate, the implication
being that even if your data finds its way into a database, it would never
be connected to you personally. But that is not what Ben was saying when
the Addressable Media Coalition met behind closed doors to discuss data
collection issues and their new "Privacy Compliance Seal". At
that meeting, Ben was reassuring his fellow interactive programmers that
individuals could always be identified.
- "You have one company that wants information,"
he told us, "they may ask it directly up front, but they may see a
decline in the number of subscribers, because the users feel it's intrusive.
On the other end, let's say I want the same information, but jeez, I can't
bring myself to ask that, because the decline is percipitous, so I already
have their nine digit ZIP code, I'm going to ask them for their birth date,
just to confirm it. With a 97 percent accuracy I can then derive that data
of who they are, and go buy all that information."
- Ben Issacson is deliberately misleading reporters and
the consumers who read about this issue. That is not surprizing; Mr. Issacson
is a paid spokesman of the interactive advertising industry. What needs
attention though is his use of the word "aggregate". He and the
programmers he represents are purposely trying to create the impression
that "aggregate" data must be "anonymous" data, and
therefore protects the viewers who surrender it.
- Not so. If the data describes a small enough pool of
subjects (individuals with a certain birthdate in a certain ZIP code for
instance) then it becomes possible to use that data as if it were personally
identifiable. In data wharehousing theory, this is called a dataset's "granularity".
And like the granularity of a photograph, it shows a clearer and clearer
picture of a crowd, until it is possible to pick out individual faces.
Ben Issacson has assured his fellow members of the AMC that he can pick
out those faces with 97% accuracy. Shall we then call his data "personally
identifiable"? Of course! And it should be regulated as such.
- As for the "knowledge and consent" Mr. Issacson
mentioned, the Addressable Media Coalition hopes to standardize what viewers
everywhere are asked to sign when they subscribe to interactive television.
One wording that members liked was "Yes, I want rich personalization!".
Who would imagine that little phrase actually gives a cable or satellite
company the permission to do so much? If you see these words, watch out.
- Goal: Tell Us About Yourself! It turns out that the moment
you sign up for interactive television is the most important 15 minutes
in the history of television. Art Cohen, Chairman of the Addressable Media
Coalition, was especially keen on this point. Set top boxes are expensive,
he told us. And if cable or satellite companies are going to subsedize
these boxes, they will want as much information as possible in return,
to hold and use for targeting.
- When you stand there looking over your television subscription
form, wondering why there are so many questions to fill out, consider what
Cohen told the Coalition:
- "When you put these boxes out there," he said,
"you also want to know who these people are, in addition to what they
have in their billing methods, it's very important to these cable operators
that the minute they install that cable box, they want to give you a questionnaire."
- The checkbox where the user opts-in our opt-out of "rich
personalization" is important. But Cohen then described other questions
that should be asked, in a standardized way, of every new customer:
- "..whatever demographics they can collect because,
think about it, if you don't get that, you have to go outside to other
sources and it's not as accurate. The whole point being that the cable
box is a polling mechanism - the absolute customization, media tool. You
have to get as much information as you can on installation and in the follow
- Another member of the Addressable Media Coalition, this
august body which is soon to launch its own Privacy Compliance Seal, named
Bob Williams, was enthusiastic about the way such information could be
used, saying "Once you get their credit card number, you can get their
whole history. There's no stopping you!"
- Chairman Cohen saw a public relations disaster in the
making. "Sure" he joked, "we can have DoubleClick make that
announcement. And make sure you have plenty of press there."
- That's funny. But what is funnier, of course, is that
DoubleClick will never have information as complete as the people who provide
interactive television. There are no technical obstacles to stop these
men and women from collecting the data they want, only the law.