NSA Snooping Could Impact Media Research

In the U.K., “TV needs you.” So says Kantar Media as it looks to recruit people to join the panel that generates TV ratings in Britain.

Residents who allow people meters to be installed in their homes can pick up nice incentives from earrings to a bottle of Smirnoff to a recreational airplane ride (“barrel role” possible!). 



This week, word came that Kantar had picked up another assignment from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) to collect census-level data on online viewing. In light of recent events, though, will it be tougher to get people to join the panels that propel much of media research?

A bottle of vodka just might not be enough. In the U.S., if the likes of Nielsen, Arbitron and comScore increasingly struggle with recruitment, they might glance at companies whose activity they need to measure: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and more.

All reportedly have participated in the National Security Agency's (NSA) controversial war-on-terror program by giving the feds the ability to track emails, online chats, photos and other behavior. The tech companies have looked to tamp down speculation that they were in cahoots with the government. What’s true or not about the snooping doesn’t necessarily matter for media-research recruiters. Perception is reality.

The explosive coverage has spurred talk about “Big Brother” and privacy violations. Reports that Google and Facebook -- those champions of the people -- have allowed the feds to scan communications creates a scary scenario for many. That's many in the mainstream. Forget about those prone to conspiracies.

A Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll has 62% saying it is more important for the government to investigate terror threats than not to intrude on privacy. But the 34% taking the opposite opinion is no small chunk. The figures haven’t changed much since 2006.

More discouraging for panel recruiters could be that 52% of Americans indicate the government should not be able to monitor emails if it would prevent a terror attack. That’s 5% higher than poll results in 2002 in the wake of 9/11.

The survey of 1,000 adults was conducted June 6-9 as the NSA story was breaking.

Media measurement companies have always faced difficulties in recruiting panelists for various reasons. One would seem to be concerns about what they do with the data. A clue comes from a Nielsen recruiting Web page:

“We value your contribution and we value your privacy. Your personally identifiable information will NEVER be used by Nielsen to advertise, promote or market third-party goods or services to you. We will not license, publish or sell any information collected from you that can be tied to an individual user such as your name, email address, postal address, etc.”

At least in the short term with the NSA backdrop, is it going too far to wonder how responsive people will be to Nielsen’s interest in attaching a meter to their computers? Or installing one of the new code readers in the living room to pick up their TV viewing? 

What about Arbitron trying to get people to carry a portable people meter? Possible Joe Public response: You want to know where I am at all times, don't you?

What about comScore wanting to place a meter on a mobile device? Response: You want to listen to my phone calls, right? (The NSA is accused of monitoring calls, too.)

Of course, recruiters are probably trained to answer all sorts of skeptical questions. They may even have a stock answer to: are you with the government?

It might need a bit of polishing now, though.

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