SXSWi: The digital industry reflects on privacy, security, and transparency

SXSW is the place where people come to read the future. But, in its 20th year, there was also an atmosphere of reflection.

The chilling effect of the NSA and GCHQ’s mass surveillance programs, exposed eight months ago, appears to have prompted the industry to take stock – issues of privacy, data security, and transparency dominated discussions.

With headline speakers including Google chairman Eric Schmidt, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, privacy and security were always going to be hot topics. But, as we steamroll towards emerging technologies such as embeddables, wearables, drones, and robotics (all being showcased with zeal in Austin), questions were raised about the huge amount of personal data being generated. Who owns it? How can we control it? What the hell should we do with it all?

Schmidt said he is “pretty sure” any information inside Google is safe from governments’ “prying eyes.” Snowden, who spoke to the crowd from Russia via a video link through seven proxies, called on the industry to develop simpler end-to-end encryption for communication tools to protect individuals’ privacy and security. He said the NSA had “set the internet on fire” and that the audience of thinkers, makers, technologists, and activists present at SXSW were the “firefighters” who could help fix it.

The relevance for marketers and communications professionals in this is that it has created a demand for greater transparency from the empowered consumer. This shift, for which social media gets the most credit, was explored in a number of talks I attended on social good.

Speaking at the ‘People, Planet, Profit, Purpose’ session on Sunday, Lori McMahon, programme manager for Intel for Change, said social good is no longer considered a CSR bolt-on, but rather an intrinsic part of the company’s DNA. She discussed Intel’s move to use non-conflict materials in its chips and said the whole industry needs to follow suit.

With the rise of the conscious consumer, it is more important than ever for brands to define and communicate their purpose. Max Lenderman, CEO and principal of School, explained during his talk on Saturday that nine-out-of-10 consumers will choose a brand that has a purpose over a similar priced rival devoid of one. “Purpose is the new digital,” he said, explaining that it will be the trend driving marketing, advertising and communications for the “foreseeable future.”

With wearable tech winning the “Year Of” title for 2014, it has, predictably, been a major talking point, cropping up in many of the marketing-focused discussions I attended.

Speaking on a panel about the opportunity for brands, Shiv Singh, SVP, global brand and marketing transformation at Visa, was bullish about the opportunities, since the credit card is in theory wearable tech, carried with consumers at all times in their wallet. The key takeaway was that brands should consider exploring the technology, but not lose sight of keeping it relevant for their brand.

It was refreshing to hear a discussion that delved into the “cultural dissonance” of Google Glass, entitled ‘Glassholes.’ Panelists (a couple of whom wore Glass) explored the polarising effects of wearable technology and covered issues such as photography permissions, child safety, digital persona, and vanity.

But, beyond wearables, embeddable technology generated a lot of buzz. The potential to place technology within the human body, such as contact lenses that measure blood sugar levels and monitors that can be swallowed as pills, effectively turns it into the next interface.

For marketers and communication professionals, the point of interest will be the huge amount of data this evolution will generate. The ability to know more about the human mind and body than ever before will enable communications to be incredibly tailored. But, again, this will also bring significant challenges in navigating the minefield of data ownership and control.

Africa as the next frontier for digital and business was another key discussion point, with plenty of talks on the subject including one about why ‘The Next Steve Jobs May Be From Africa.’

In a talk about how data is changing international development, Nathanial Manning, business director at Kenyan tech firm Ushahidi, said there is not a monopoly in Silicon Valley on innovation. “There is more access, but that doesn’t mean the best ideas will come from there,” he added. And he questioned how innovative Google Glass really is. While it solves the “annoying” problem of having to check your phone regularly, it is not “game-changing.”

In his discussion on the business potential of the MENA region, Amit Vyas, CEO of Nexa, Dubai, similarly argued that “from necessity, comes true innovation,” meaning Africa and the Middle East will be where the world’s best innovation comes from.

Of course, there was the usual chaos at SXSW this year – long lines; free T-shirts, pens and tacos; people desperately trying to create hype around their start-ups; and a marketing jargon and Twitter overdose. But, overall, it felt like a call to arms for the digital industry to keep innovating in a way that ensures the internet can remain a democratizing power for good, and not become a weapon for mass surveillance and control.

Sarah Shearman covered SXSW Interactive 2014 for Warc

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