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Personalization: Gateway to Dystopia 

Andrew Rudin | Apr 3, 2017 155 views No Comments

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Back in the ‘90’s, Robert, a project manager at a systems integrator, asked me for some technical guidance about automated identification. “I want to track people,” he said. “Basically, I want to know when a person enters a room, when he exits, when he’s out in the hallway. Wherever a person is, I need to track it, and to know.”

“That sounds like a prison!” one of his colleagues quipped. The colleague was right. Robert’s client was a correctional facility, and the need was not trivial. Robert shared many reasons for keeping tabs on an inmate’s whereabouts, 24/7. To achieve his goal, I helped him cobble a network of barcode printers, scanners and other devices. In the 20 years since, technological advances and the IoT (Internet of Things) has immensely simplified this task, making it both inexpensive and quick to deploy. I predicted this. At the time, uses for RFID and related technologies were rapidly expanding. I also anticipated that consumers would similarly become coveted targets for surveillance. But in my wildest imagination, I never expected how compliant they would be in allowing others to monitor them.

Surveillance carries a sinister ring, unless, I suppose, you’re a professional spy. Understandably, marketers skate around the term whenever they create ads, web pages, press releases, and other content. Fortunately, they can substitute a related word, one that’s friendlier, with proven sales mojo: personalization. In a digital economy, that helps clear the path to the crown jewels of marketing: detailed personal records.



The sales speil for Ocean Medallion, a new wearable offering from Princess Cruise Lines, gets an A-plus for cleverness. “You don’t need to introduce yourself to your Ocean Medallion Class ship; it knows you already. Your crew? They answer your requests before you even ask them. We’re giving you more than elevated personalized service; we’re creating personal moments.”

Providing personal moments for passengers doesn’t happen without surveillance and amassing a trove of valuable personal data, and other information. Princess has invested accordingly. To track its Medallion-wearing guests, Princess equips its vessels with around 7,000 sensors. What do these sensors sense? Well, remember the prison example I mentioned. Then, let your imagination soar!

Thanks to Sting, a darker, more poetic way to express the same idea: Every breath you take/ Every move you make/ Every bond you break/ Every step you take/ I’ll be watching you

Personalization on a cruise ship involves feeding a ravenous data engine, and sensors provide much of the input. The output cascades through colorful displays. Throughout every Medallion-equipped ship, Carnival has strategically positioned 4,000 15” plasma screens to push personal messages to passengers. “Hi Candace! Karabela dresses are now 25% off in the women’s boutique on D-Deck.” Candace receives this information because Princess knows about her buying habits, including when she’s likely to purchase what. It also helps that Princess owns an archive of her activity since the start of her voyage, and an algorithm knows that every day around 4 pm, Candace wanders to the bar on D-Deck, ambling right past the boutique. Ka-ching! “Imagine how many more margaritas, massages and shore excursions [the company] will sell by making it so simple to book by using a Medallion on your wrist that unlocks personalization for you everywhere,” Chris Peterson wrote in a blog, 5 Things Retailers Can Learn from Booking a Smart Cruise.

Indeed. For Princess, research about individual customers starts before they embark. Thanks to social media, Princess has a ready-made repository of fungible insight. “The goal of pre-planning is learning more about our guests,” said Michael G. Jungen, Carnival’s Senior Vice President of Experience, Design and Technology  (Carnival is a Princess brand). According to a New York Times article, Coming to Carnival Cruises: a Wearable Medallion That Records Your Every Whim, (January 4, 2017), Jungen “noted that passengers would have the option of linking their medallions with social media accounts, allowing Carnival to delve even deeper . . . As Carnival designed the Ocean Medallion system inside an unmarked building here in suburban Miami, it built a replica set of staterooms, corridors and other ship facilities to test concepts. Scribbles on a monumental white board in one area contained algorithms and personalization ideas.” Examples: when you eat dinner and what you watch on TV. More? . . . Oh yeah!

Jungen and colleague John Padgett, Carnival’s Chief Experience and Innovation Officer, brought their CX and data collection skills from Disney, where they developed a wristband system called MyMagic+. Disney invested over $1 billion in the project. “The ultimate goal here,” Padgett said, referencing a Disney aphorism, “is to delight and surprise our guests.” He makes a good point. Cruise vacationers like to feel pampered. They want special seats in restaurants. They want food brought to them whenever and wherever they are. They don’t want to stress about knowing where their kids are on a massive ship. Wearable guest-tracking devices make these perks possible.

Carnival, and other companies that collect and store large amounts of customer information, explain that their motivations are benign, and that their intent is to provide consumers unprecedented conveniences and outstanding experiences, or CX. That may be true, but it’s not the full story. The same detailed digital customer profile that enables the bartender to custom-pour Candace’s Negroni also feeds finely-tuned algorithms that are superb at separating her from her money. That includes long after the cruise ship returns to the dock. For Carnival, Candace’s digital profile is a cash cow that keeps on giving. Little wonder that Carnival would like every passenger to wear an Ocean Medallion. They just don’t divulge ongoing cash flow and data monetization among the reasons.

Customers should consider what they sacrifice to experience those personal moments. With wearable devices, it’s no longer theoretical to ask which intimate details can be captured and recorded. The correct question to ask is not, “why would a company want that kind of information?” but rather, “what’s stopping them from getting it?” With over 7,000 sensors aboard a ship, I suspect very few people know where all of them are placed, or what activities they monitor. I’d start with the stateroom.

In 2012, President Obama said that “companies should present choices about data sharing, collection, use, and disclosure that are appropriate for the scale, scope, and sensitivity of personal data in question at the time of collection.” In other words, businesses should tailor privacy rules to the data itself. But when I visited the Princess website, I did not see any disclosures or policies specific to Ocean Medallion. And their latest privacy statement was updated in December, 2014, before Ocean Medallion was introduced. “Some data collected from wearables may be relatively trivial, but other data can be highly sensitive,” said Kelsey Finch, Policy Counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF), which has published a paper providing recommendations for wearable privacy practices.

Before donning an Ocean Medallion, or other wearable device, what should consumers want to know? The US Federal Trade Commission offers sensible guidelines for companies to include in privacy statements:

• identification of the entity collecting the data

• identification of the uses to which the data will be put

• identification of any potential recipients of the data

• the nature of the data collected and the means by which it is collected if not obvious (passively, by means of electronic monitoring, or actively, by asking the consumer to provide the information)

• whether the provision of the requested data is voluntary or required, and the consequences of a refusal to provide the requested information

• the steps taken by the data collector to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and quality of the data

And I’ll add a couple of my own:

• How long will the data be retained?

• How will it be protected?

For now, these guidelines unevenly used – if they are used at all. And I’m not bullish that consumers will demand that companies adhere to them. There are two reasons: first, I don’t think consumers care. Many are digital natives who are jaded about digital surveillance. And thanks to clever marketers, the “wow!” of personalization – like having a waiter just hand you your favorite drink whenever and wherever you want – supersedes consumer concerns over data governance. Please – the next time someone spouts hype about customers having all the information power, remember Ocean Medallion.

Second, Congress just emasculated the already-weak consumer protections regarding data privacy. If Trump signs the joint resolution of congressional disapproval, Internet providers are free from any obligation to get a consumer’s approval to “share or sell things such as your geolocation, your children’s information, your financial information, your Social Security Number, your browsing history, your app usage history, or the content of your message data plan . . . Internet providers will also be free to use customer data in other ways, such as selling the information directly to data brokers that target lucrative or vulnerable demographics”, according to a March 29th Washington Post article, Congress Pulls Plug on Internet Protections.

You’ve probably gathered from my polemic that I’m not a good prospect for Princess or Ocean Medallion. You are right. But if I became their customer, I suspect Princess could quickly learn more about me than maybe I even know about myself. Thanks to Congress, all it now takes is transferring personal data from my Internet Service Provider, blending it with Ocean Medallion’s personalization data, and voila! – digital gold! The worst part (or best part, depending on your perspective): no consumer disclosures are required. A chilling thought that signifies how many more miles we’ve traveled on the road to dystopia.

Surveillance enables personalization, and personalization brings customers personal moments. But those wonderful times won’t be free, and they won’t give people freedom. Being watched never does. There will always be more personal details revealed, and an accompanying monetary transaction.  Personalization delivers marketers an unprecedented ability to know customers intimately, and to hone how they sell to them.  That should give every consumer momentary pause.  Meanwhile, expect vendors to continue hawking the wonderful CX that personalization enables. For them, the value of what customers so willingly sacrifice is incalculably high.

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