Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. Photo: File
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. Photo: File

Tech Track: At what point does magic turn into dubious manipulation?

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 12, 2021

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By Kelvin Kemm

Marketing campaigns and mechanisms are becoming more and more scientific and sophisticated. Something of significant interest are optical illusions and magicians’ tricks.

I believe that within the community of magicians there is a protocol under which they say that they are performing tricks, and never that what they do is real.

However, much of what they do relies on scientific discoveries concerning human perception and brain function. These techniques enable them to totally convince an audience that it saw something which did not happen in reality.

Much of modern marketing is also being designed using the same scientific discoveries concerning perception and brain function. One has to ask, at what point does some well-intentioned information campaign turn into a dubious manipulation? I have before said that scientists in all fields should be much more involved in predicting what can be done in society with the results of their work.

A case in point, which is now developing into an argument, is the issue of the use of location data on cellphones. People are so used to seeing questions appearing on cellphones asking for permission to use location data, or saying “I accept the use of cookies” and so on, that very many people just tick the box and go on.

But this location data is being used in marketing and is becoming smarter and smarter. The arguments now revolve around, who can do what, to who, when, and how. They are amorphous questions, which make them most difficult to answer.

With the location data that companies pick up, they can track where you are with great precision. They can tell which coffee shop you frequent, petrol garage you visit, which supermarkets, and so on. They can then correlate all this information to figure out if you always buy one brand of petrol, or visit a certain coffee franchise.

Some companies specialise in collecting and correlating this information and then selling it on to others. Others can then use the information to send marketing messages to your phone or home PC.

So the coffee franchise can keep sending you messages to come back or a competitor can send messages to rather visit them.

Location data profiling can lead to a monitoring of your physical world behaviour. It can illustrate user identity linked to purchase intent, brand affinities and other customer competitive intelligence. These digital profiling capabilities have famously been dubbed “surveillance capitalism”.

However, there are also now “geofenced areas” in the system. What this means is that a particular shopping complex can detect when you get close to the complex and then one particular shop can send you messages to visit them right now because they have a “special” running.

Additionally, if you have been searching the internet recently for a particular item, like I did for a jigsaw, then you get messages about where you can get one right now.

It was useful until I bought it, but it was a bit of a nuisance when I kept getting jigsaw messages for some time afterwards.

At this stage in the evolution of the technology, marketing companies are using it for what they see as beneficial purposes. But what happens when criminal elements discover how to use it and gain access?

This potential misuse should be examined in depth now, before one finds that it becomes necessary to study it after serious misconduct has already become entrenched. A little bit of thought soon illuminates the potential extent of the abuse of the technological capabilities.

Currently, there is quite a conflict going on between some of the large internet and phone companies as they confront one another, and as they include the conscience of society, as to what rules of the game are acceptable.

It is realised that when consumers are asked to “give permission for location data”, by far the majority have no idea what this really means.

Certainly much of the result is highly beneficial, but at what point is a line crossed into unethical behaviour or magician-like illusion, which causes consumers to be coerced without realising it?

It is an interesting debate with significant sociological consequences.

Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. He carries out business strategy development and project planning in a wide variety of fields for diverse clients.


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