Up for discussion in the Guardian tech newsletter: The risks of using personal data to influence citizens’ behaviour … Apple backtracks … and the history of the App Store

What should a public service announcement be in the 21st century? How can a government communicate with its citizens? And when does a state-run ad campaign become public policy in its own right?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about ever since I spoke to Ben Collier, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, about his research into what he calls “influence government”: the increasingly common practice of government bodies of all sizes turning to personalised advertising and online targeting to try to alter the behaviour of their citizens.

The examples of influence government uncovered by the centre range from deeply serious to almost endearingly silly. At one end of the spectrum is the National Crime Agency’s “Cyber-Prevent” program, which involves identifying young people at risk of becoming involved in cybercrime. Some arms of program, which is modelled on the anti-radicalisation Prevent scheme, involve traditional “knock and talk” visits, where NCA officers make a home visit to try and work with the young person’s parents to steer them to a different life path.

But that part of the program also sees the NCA collect a substantial amount of data about the young people it visits, which can be used to craft profiles of the typical “at-risk” teen. Those profiles can then be used to run an “influence policing” campaign, using targeted advertising aimed at UK teens with an interest in gaming who search for particular cybercrime services on Google.

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