Sunday, May 03, 2009


Privacy is not something that i think about much, even though i am by most measures a private person. I have no public visibility beyond a Facebook page; and to be honest i don't do much of anything that would be interesting to the outside world. But privacy is something that i feel strongly about, something that i regard as a fundamental right. I've always thought that threats to privacy would come in the form of government monitoring, something that whether covert or obvious would be done against the will of the parties being monitored.

My recent experience with data marketers makes me realize that we are for the most part passive participants in our greatest privacy threats. Public records, sweepstakes entries, warranty cards, store loyalty programs-- all situations where we volunteer information without much thought about how it will be used. And it is used. It is collected and sold and used to target us for more crap. Other than being exceedingly annoying, there's usually nothing sinister about most of this data collection. The companies collecting it and using it rarely care about the behavior of the individuals beyond the marketing value of a person's particular demographic segment. The potential for abuse is significant, but it is limited by the connections that can be made between various public transactions.

On the other hand, i am less comfortable with the sort of behavioral targeting that happens on the Internet. First, web browsing is nearly ubiquitous and far more frequent than paper transactions. Second, i think relatively few people are familiar with the concept of third-party tracking cookies and how they are used to do behavioral tracking. Again the companies doing the tracking have little interest in individuals, but i think it would freak most people out to realize that there are organizations tracking a good portion of their browsing history and using it to categorize them for ad targeting. Third, i think the potential for abuse is far greater. The data collected is detailed and more personal, and can be more easily correlated to other sources.

There is also little regulation of this industry. The internet standard for specifying privacy practices (P3P) never saw significant adoption, and compliance is voluntary. Of course, opting out of this type of tracking is relatively easy, since you can block the cookies from being set in the first place, or you can use technological solutions like AdBlock that eliminates many of the ads you see on web pages. However, I'd wager that at least 3/4 of Internet users are unaware of behavioral targeting, and of those that are many are comfortable with ad targeting so long as the result is not intrusive (ie, no email spam or cell phone calls). I would have counted myself among the latter until recently, when i began to realize the strong incentives that marketers have to connect behavioral information to ever more detailed personal info (age, address, marital status, number of children, telephone numbers).

The concept of privacy is evolving i believe from "being left alone" to "being in control". Specifically, personal and behavioral information is something that you own, and sharing it should be at your discretion. Also, since you own it, sharing it should be something that you potentially profit from. There are marketing organizations and identity management companies that are working on such ideas, but i sense that making this idea a reality would require legislation that hasn't happened yet.

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