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Society - Written by on Monday, May 31, 2010 15:20 - 6 Comments

Jeff DeChambeau
The privacy discussion we need to have

I’ve written previously about gleaning insight into consumer habits by looking at log files, and profiled the so-called “bot mediated reality” of security consultant turned fiction author Daniel Suarez. So, when facebook’s latest privacy debacle happened, the idea of my wall-posts and liked-pages being shared with the world was secondary in my mind to the sheer amount of information that facebook collects about how we use the internet–both on and off the site (off-site tracking being done now with the embeddable “like” buttons that are cropping up all over the internet–this sort of thing is something that Google also can do/does with the analytics code that it makes available to webmasters, you can opt out of that here). The idea of one organization having that much information about what each of us is up to all over the internet and in our social networks, an organization that is repeatedly being showcased as ‘actively against privacy’ or technically incompetent, is very scary.

The bigger fear, I fear, is a much larger can of worms. This is why I was delighted to see Tim O’Reilly’s weekend post, Putting Online Privacy in Perspective. While O’Reilly’s post itself is largely quotes from search engine expert Danny Sullivan commenting on a WSJ article, it hits on a core issue that is often left below the surface when we’re openly discussing privacy: facebook is only one company that’s collecting data on our activities, there are many others, collecting and crunching data on many other (often ‘private’) activities. One example, as Sullivan explored:

My credit card company knows everything I’ve purchased, which is a pretty personal trail. That doesn’t get “anonymized” after 9 months or 18 months. I have no idea at all what happens to it. I can’t, like at Google, push a button and make it go poof, either. I don’t think I have any rights over it at all.

Credit card companies aren’t the only organizations with access to tons and tons of data about us. Our cellphone service providers know where we are and who we’re calling and texting, and our IM providers keep our conversations for a few weeks. Even in-game behaviors in videogames can be tracked. While a lot of this data collection is justifiable to improve the customer experience, it can all just as easily be used for any number of other purposes.

I think that this is where we need to focus our public dialog about privacy and control. Facebook’s data collection is just one symptom of the direction where society as a whole is moving: to the mass collection, aggregation, and cross referencing of consumer data so that organizations can better understand, target, and market to each and every one of us. From the perspective of the the enterprises, this is where we want to go, and more technology and instrumentation means more, better data. Speaking for myself, as a consumer and citizen, it’s not where I want things to end up. This is a discussion that we need to have.


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Barb Chamberlain
May 31, 2010 18:51

We’re already there and have been for quite a while. You can purchase mailing lists of people sliced and diced a thousand ways on various demographic indicators, a market which pre-dates the Internet (although sorting data is certainly easier now).

If I want vehicle-owning married moms 35-54 who lean left politically, own their homes, drink lots of coffee and read the New Yorker, I can get that list, and the variables run much deeper.

Take a look at just one vendor’s lists of variables as an example: http://www.directmail.com/directory/mailing_lists/consumerlists/ and http://www.directmail.com/directory/list_management/. You can order a list labeled “individuals who need money now,” among others–who knows the source of that desperate bunch of people?

I write “do not sell or trade my contact information” on every subscription, membership sign-up or info request card I fill out. I don’t fill out warranty cards since the warranty is good even if you don’t give them all that lovely demographic information they request that has nothing to do with my appliance’s durability. I use a specific email for all “junk” sign-ups and flag as spam anything I know I didn’t ask for directly.

I don’t know whether it does any good, but I’m trying, and if it looks as though an organization I joined violated my request I try to do something about it.

Eternal vigilance is the price of an empty mailbox (real and electronic).


Storytelling Social Media Marketing PR Business & Technology Curated Stories May 31, 2010
May 31, 2010 18:52

[...] The privacy discussion we need to have Published: May 31, 2010 Source: Wikinomics I’ve written previously about gleaning insight into consumer habits by looking at log files, and profiled the so-called “bot mediated reality” of security consultant turned fiction author Daniel Suarez. S… [...]

essin dees
Jun 1, 2010 8:08

Everything you tell your travel agent and a hotel gets communicated to customs agents if you’re a foreigner.

Crossing borders means you have 0 privacy.

FOIA your data and find out!

Jun 2, 2010 8:12

Jeff – I completely agree with Barb.

For quite some time, however, I have been advocating that there is an opportunity for some enterprising data miner to simply acknowledge what is occurring – that a robust, (mostly) legitimate, multi-billion dollar back-channel of data transactions among large marketing operations is flourishing and will continue to do so – by providing a means to give consumers a piece of the action with their own data. See: http://www.austinstartup.com/2008/10/make-em-pay/

I mean, we pay consumers for referrals (ala Amazon Associates programs) and provide them pricing preferences for loyalty and attention. Why not just write them a check for their data – the more data, the bigger the check? Especially the data that is the hard to obtain stuff?

Interested in hearing your take on whose doing the most innovative, customer-friendly job of making the consumer a partner in the financial stakes, versus the parasite-host relationship that most of us seem to complain about?

Jun 3, 2010 10:24

Barb makes a good point, and one I’d forgotten. Years ago, way back in the last century, we purchased lists from list brokers, in hard copy, to specs we gave them. Though we did not expect response rates better than 2-3% from any list, we bought them anyway since it was the best way to reach potential business customers. So, information – name, company, title, address, phone number – has been available for a long time, for a price.
What’s now available is much more detailed, much more personal, and potentially much more leverageable (not really a word) by people and companies with good and bad intentions. Monitoring, being smart, paying attention are all good ideas, but ultimately, information that is out of one’s control now is a) often unidentifiable and not easily located and b) likely out of one’s control for good. There needs to be a discussion about this topic, but I’d frame it as a discussion of control vs. use: people want and need to have control of their digital identities and their data while enabling companies and others they choose to use that data to provide them services and opportunities. But I am talking here only about control of data from this point forward; we are unlikely to get data that other people have on us back. Bottom line, IMO: we should own our data and permit it to be used on a case-by-case basis but we did not think about that before we gave so much of it away. A question that comes to mind now: What did we expect companies to do with our data anyway? It’s not just them, it’s us.

Jeff DeChambeau
Jun 7, 2010 12:29

Barb: Great–and scary–comment. I’m curious as to why there was never any backlash against the practice. I’d be pretty ticked (and not just at myself) if I wound up on a list of “people who need money now.” Much of that data had to be volunteered through subscription cards or customer loyalty forms, so I wonder if that the information was “volunteered” made it halfway alright (or if people had, just as they have no, very little or no idea what is done with the information)? Or did people not care then, and they care just as little now?

Steve: I’ve had a similar thought, if all of my data is being used to market to me ever-more specifically, chances are that as a consumer I was easier to find, so why not give me a hefty discount, or yeah, some money back. Value (for the enterprise) is being captured, but the people paying the price for it aren’t in any way compensated. This will have to come from us consumers, as I doubt anyone’s going to start volunteering to pay more for something they’re already buying. Spins nicely into Ti’ms comment.

Tim: Nice can of worms hidden in there. Companies will only behave as badly as we let them, but of course we love to throw up our arms and complain when something bad happens because no one was watching to stop it :) .

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