Wiretapping teens isn’t research, and it should never be permissible

So said US Senator Richard Blumenthal, talking to TechCrunch, the technology news site that broke this week’s Facebook headlines. The site has been reporting on Facebook and Google in connection with apps that track users’ behaviour online.

The evolution of this story is a textbook example of how differing agendas, trust and reputation shape how a story plays out. At its heart is the application of a research technique in order to build consumer and competitor insight. Businesses have to understand their customers and the competitive landscape in order to create great products and grow. And research with consumers, if done with appropriate permissions and data control, is perfectly legitimate – passive techniques included.

The real story here seems to be that Facebook has been breaking Apple AppStore rules. The social network has been unclear about the extent of data it was getting hold of and what it was going to do with it. If that’s true, that’s clearly not good.

But there is mistrust about Facebook’s motives. It is painted on the tech site as ‘desperate for data on its competitors’ which says the company ‘admitted…. it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits’ (my emphasis).

In attempting to be a voice of reason here, please don’t assume that I condone the misappropriation of data or the exploitation of unwitting consumers. But it’s fascinating to see how the media doesn’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

By the time the story reaches the nationals, the story becomes ‘Facebook paid children to watch them on the internet and read their private messages’. Emotive much?

But there are examples of organisations who are using permission-based passive techniques positively and responsibly to good effect.

Ofcom understands the power of passive techniques. It uses very similar methodology in its annual Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report which was released this week. The respondents shared with Ofcom browser history and app usage data, amongst other inputs to allow the organisation to build a fascinating picture of what children are watching and why.

Perhaps I’m pre-empting the outcry, but I don’t see the media picking a fight with Ofcom for using the exact same methodology.

In fact passive tracking – a research technique that reveals the actual online behaviours of consumer in a digital environment – is a powerful insight tool. Used appropriately within MRS and data protection guidelines and with fully informed permission of the participants, it can reveal incredible truths and build valuable understanding.

We’ve also used passive with global brands, including media, with children, safely and with consent.

So, no, wiretapping teens isn’t research and isn’t permissible. But passive insight techniques, used appropriately don’t deserve to be scapegoated.