Petition against Passwords

About two weeks ago, the “advocacy” campaign “Petition Against Passwords” launched. It is exactly what it sounds like. Hate passwords? Think they’re pesky and insecure? And forget about two-step authentication! Well, now there’s a petition to sign showing resistance the password patriarchy. Fight the power! (Or something.)

The petition was started by the makers of Clef, a mobile app that provides login support without the use of passwords (it uses smartphone authentication along with a QR code-like signature). It’s been a few weeks now, and a couple of news articles have been written about it. And Clef’s PR brigade is quick to show you all the companies and the advocacy groups involved.

But, here’s the thing: It has almost no signatures. (Okay, it has about 500 signatures. But that’s considered “zero percent” of its intended goal of 100,000.)

zero percentThere are numerous petitions out there garnering little to no interest. But this specific one is fascinating, because it operates as a dual marketing push and public service announcement. Surely its paltry signature count must be indicative of a lack of general success?

On the other hand, maybe just the presence and buzz around the campaign are enough.

According to Clef’s chief product officer, Jesse Pollak, this started as a personal project of his and his cohorts at Clef. “We’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” he told me. This issue, at least according to him, wasn’t really to sell sell sell, but to enlighten the masses about the ludicrousness of passwords. He sees it as a way to show why his product is necessary, not necessarily to get a boost in sales (of course, that would be nice).

And now 10 companies have signed up to join the anti-password fight, many of whom are considered competitors. What’s going on? Isn’t this thing a complete failure?

Clef here is trying to transform its primary marketing ploy (i.e. passwords are bad, we don’t use passwords!), into a public service issues (i.e. passwords are bad, why is the world so dependent on passwords?). And now other similar companies are noticing and joining the ranks. So despite the fact that this petition is garnering almost zero support, it’s still “shedding light” on the issue (read: product).

What we have here is a bizarre hybrid of marketing and politics. There’s a “cause” at hand, but the end point is not a greater public good but the success of a market. Yes, Clef thinks that passwords are a global security issue, but that’s why it is selling you something. Awareness is half the point.

Of course, this isn’t the first petition that has a sellable product at heart. Earlier this year we saw petitions advocating for the repeal of the cease and desist order on cab startups like Uber and Lyft. Perhaps most notably was the petition for car-maker Tesla asking the president to allow the car to be sold in all 50 states. Perhaps we’ll be seeing Elon Musk make another petition on the side of the “Hyperloop,” (though all indications show that he won’t really need the publicity).

And petition platforms like Change.org are booming. The company announced last week that it now has 40 million users, doubling its user base from a year ago.

Change.org is very cognizant of this tactic, and doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing either. As the website’s spokesperson told me in an email, companies create their own causes “all the time.” Its business platform allows businesses to buy featured space on the website to promote their specific cause. And sometimes these campaigns do work. But other times, when a company runs a “super promotional” campaign that “[doesn't] really resonate with people, they may not see much success.”

Despite the low numbers on the Petition Against Passwords, the parties involved all claim general success. According to Pollak, the increased number in companies participating since the launch are all positive signs. He also claims that the petition has already increased Clef’s traffic.

Geoff Sanders of LaunchKey, a company also participating in the petition, echoed Pollak’s views. “We definitely did see quite a bit of inbound traffic and interest as a result of the petition along with the press it generated,” he wrote to me in an email. Of course, if you’re in the midst of a marketing campaign, you have to say something along those lines.

So in Clef’s eyes (or at least what it says to a reporter), everything is going according to plan. But is it, really? I doubt a measly 500 signatures was part of its “original plan” with this campaign. But according to Pollak, what’s important is not necessarily reaching the goal, but getting as many eyes to see the petition as possible. “We consider this a long game,” he told me. “And we’ve been really pleased with the impact we’ve had.”

The real quantifier for success is site traffic, which is something we can only take the companies’ words on right now. And, even if this is a failure in the eyes of signatures, any publicity is good publicity, right? These are all things executives have to say.

So the question becomes what we should consider an “impact” or a “success,” when the goal is equally about marketing and quasi-politics? Are signatures the key ingredient to a successful petitioning campaign? As Clef sees it right now, not really. It’s just about getting people to see it.

According to this logic, the success of any petition, and therefore the ostensible purpose of the petition itself, is completely moot. Welcome to the brave new world of online politico-marketing.