The current privacy discussion is the wrong discussion: VIDEO REPORT

by Prof. Steven Van Belleghem

We are at the start of phase three of digital evolution. However, the privacy and ethics discussions of governments usually relate more closely to the second phase of digitalization, when smartphones and social media were transforming the way we communicate.

Today, the European Commission is not happy about the advertising model of Facebook and Google. In June 2017, the Commission hit Google with a massive 2.4 billion dollar fine, because it felt that the company was giving more advertising opportunities to its own products than the products of others.

This is like fining a supermarket because it gives more publicity to its own house brands than to the brands of its competitors. It doesn’t make sense.

Steven Van BelleghemSimilarly, lots of privacy commissions in different countries get very agitated about Facebook’s use of cookies. Facebook can follow people’s behaviour over different websites.

They do this by leaving small data files (cookies) in the browsers of the digital devices used by surfers. Even if you are not a Facebook user, your online behaviour can be monitored by the social network sites.

Once you have clicked on a Facebook image on, say, a news site, Facebook can follow your every digital move. In this way, they theoretically have the ability to track every internet user.

Of course, you can debate whether this is a good thing or not, but in reality Facebook’s use of cookies has only limited consequences for society and the daily lives of consumers. In essence, all it does is decide what kind of advertising you get (or don’t get) to see, and it allows them to already know who your family and friends are the first time you log on to the site. Some people call this creepy; others call it user-friendly.

The debate should be about impact. The impact on society of the elements for which Facebook and Google are punished is minimal. It almost seems like some kind of sport for the privacy commissions to find new ways to give both companies a rap over the knuckles. However, this type of privacy discussion really belongs to the second digital phase and has too little impact to seriously worry or excite the vast majority of people.

It is time to move the privacy discussion into the third phase

The real discussion should not be about following people online with cookies. It should be about the sensors in our telephones, the power of artificial intelligence when armed with our data, the use of the information that virtual assistants collect about us.

If you have Google Home or Amazon Echo in your house, you probably talk for 15 minutes a day with a machine. But guess what that machine does for the remaining 23 hours and 45 minutes. Exactly! It listens. And not only does it listen, it also records. Every word you say.

One of the very first examples in my latest book is about the use of Amazon Echo in a murder trial, but at a more prosaic level, Amazon says it uses the data collected in this way to learn more (amongst other things) about dialects. But the amount of data held by Amazon (and the other tech-giants) is staggering and once unsupervised computer learning becomes possible, all this mass of data will become proactively useable.

The essential debate should therefore be about what we, as a society, want to happen with this huge source of knowledge. Although if you’ve bought a smart TV from Samsung, it’s already too late.

Their privacy statement explicitly includes the following disclaimer: “Be careful you do not say things of a personal or sensitive nature around your television, because all this information will be recorded and sold on to third parties.”

Yet everyone agrees to this privacy statement without batting an eyelid! At the moment, Samsung doesn’t do much with this data, but once personalized advertising on TV becomes feasible, the data will become highly relevant. If you are discussing with your partner in your living room what make of new car to buy, within seconds you will get an advert on TV for the brand you have just mentioned! There will be no such thing as coincidence in the third phase of digitalization.

In short, we would do better to devote our time and energy to discussing those elements that have a greater impact on society. How will we deal with the potential loss of jobs? How are we going to prepare for the greater need for digital skills? How are we going to adjust our education system?

What do we want AI to do for us? What is the role of virtual personal assistants in our homes? These are all important questions for us as consumers, and as businesses.

Prof. Steven Van BelleghemProf. Steven Van Belleghem is an expert in customer focus in the digital world. He’s is an award-winning author, and his new book Customers The Day After Tomorrow is out now. Follow him on Twitter @StevenVBe, subscribe to his videos at or visit

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