When Salesforce Connects Us All, Privacy Becomes Impossible

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Tech companies are pursuing the hyper-connected dream, and we will follow, regardless of the massive impact it will have on our privacy and security, says Tom Brewster

Humans are not humans. No, they are customers, ripe for picking.  They should be targeted. They should have things stuffed down their throats that they might not even want or need. To these ears, that’s the driving Salesforce message at its Dreamforce conference this week, albeit delivered in less abrasive diction.

The company’s chief slogan is now “the Internet of Customers”. Behind every app, behind every device, there is a customer. Not a person, a customer, a thing to be turned into profit. Co-founder Parker Harris nailed the company’s mindset when these words exited his mouth, sans irony: “In the future everyone is branded”. He was dressed as Doc Brown from Back to the Future, in a “skit” he later described as “funny”, but dystopian images, of everyone simultaneously being a marketer and a product, flickered amidst the storm clouds of your reporter’s jetlagged mind.

Marc Benioff Salesforce.com Dreamforce 2012Salesforce needs the Internet of Things

The problem for Salesforce is, as it continues its unrelenting drive for never-ending growth, it needs to find new ways for people to connect to its products. That’s why it’s hyping up, ad nauseam, the Internet of Things:  it wants everything to have an IP address, so it can have APIs that connect all those things to its shiny new Salesforce1 platform.

Exempli gratia: CEO Marc Benioff brandished a connected Philips toothbrush as he evangelised on the wonderment of this brave new world. Its usefulness over the everyday, non-electric toothbrush is questionable.  But it’s a nice way for Philips to keep tabs on its product, connect it into its “ecosystem”, and further spur on growth. People, it is hoped, will literally be stuffing these connected devices in their mouths, with the Salesforce platform behind it all.

There’s a data point Benioff uses to get his ideology across too: the chief marketing officer is to spend more on technology than the CIO by 2017. What does that tell us? That we are moving away from technology as a utility. That we are moving to a world where technology is first and foremost an advertising platform.

This is not wholly negative. Far from it. Salesforce does amazing philanthropic things with its “111 model”, where one percent of equity, time and products are given away to notable causes. This week, the company has been talking about its work helping Haiti recover from the horrific 2010 earthquake. Benioff has promised funds for the Philippines, in the wake of the devastating typhoon. This is positive capitalism in action.

And Salesforce is no different from any revenue-hungry, growth-obsessed technology company. The whole industry is desperate for everything to get connected, hence the endless sermons on our super-automated, machine-to-machine future. It’s a massive opportunity for vendors to embed their code and their hardware in anything, from your clothes to your car. To continue to expand, Salesforce and others need to find new ways of creating a “single view” of a customer. Or, as Foucault may have put it, they need to acquire an ever more penetrating gaze into our lives.

Panopticons expand

But here’s the bleak side of your future, as delivered by our technological overlords… Panopticons of surveillance and control grow ever larger, as private companies promote the need to connect everything to the Internet and intelligence agencies reap the benefits, whether doing so legally or illegally. All forms of malicious hacking become more widespread, thanks to the fact that anything with an IP address likely has a vulnerability and security remains an afterthought.  People are bombarded with targeted advertisements wherever they are, whether at the bus stop, on the toilet or asleep in bed. People are walking, talking adverts too, drinking from Coke bottles with their names on, watching and praising corporate propaganda dressed up as sitcom (how The Internship was allowed to exist is simply startling), and giving away more and more of their data to get free stuff.

And sure, you can say people have a choice, they don’t have to buy these products, they can opt out. But when things fundamental to modern living, like a phone or a toothbrush or a computer, become connected by default, it becomes increasingly hard to make those choices. Being secure becomes an impossibility. Avoiding the age of the ads a chimera. But who cares? As we’ve been told, we’re not human after all. We are customers and should be treated accordingly.

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