The play Privacy has just opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse and it is a must-see for those involved in data, analytics and personalisation.

This excellent play explores the issues of privacy and surveillance in the post-Snowden era. The play starts with the writer seeing his therapist, exploring his unwillingness to share.

The writer then commits to share online after being pressed by his Director and from this premise we explore the issues of privacy and security and secrecy.

The audience is encouraged to participate, taking and sending selfies and reading out Google search suggest results for “it is wrong to…”.

A picture of my mum and I flashed onscreen. We were eager participants in the fun. These moments of lightness were contrasted with moments more serious as photos of houses of audience members were shown on screen – based on publicly available data pulled from phones of those accessing the Donmar’s wifi network.

These moments of seriousness reminded us of how much we share, often without thinking. We were told that what we post on Facebook reveals whether our relationships will last and whether we are extroverted or introverted. 

The play explores the serious issues of how much data we are willing to share and for what purpose. Guardian journalists feature prominently and there is much debate on stage about the revelations from Edward Snowden.

Including asking (and in part answering) why Edward Snowden would throw his life away for this.  

The use of personal data for commercial purposes as well as for security is explored. Clive Humby (founder of Dunnhumby, creator of the Tesco ClubCard), played by one of the actors, appears on stage several times.

Humby’s character underscores the importance of human intervention in algorithms. He gives the example of a search on amazon.co.uk for a baseball bat.

Select the first bat, now scroll down to the product recommendations and you will see a balaclava recommended (screen shot below). Scroll to the right and you will see brass knuckles.

The recommendation engine isn’t basing these suggestions on a shopper’s past purchases but on products often purchased together. And this is not an association that Amazon would likely want on its site.  

Amazon Recommendation Engine

My recent post on personalisation touched on this issue. There are things that you can tell your customer – but don’t want to. 

The play is extremely well-acted and written. It will make you squirm, laugh and reflect. It explores some of the most important issues of the day.

My only criticisms are that the play covers too many issues to go into enough depth and the portrayal of American NSA employees as buffoons was a bit trite. All in all though – an excellent piece of theatre on a serious issue. 

Leaving the play I asked my mother whether she would change her behaviour based on a better understanding of how her data is used. She didn’t answer – she was too busy updating her status on Facebook.