18 Mar Big Brother is watching, privacy barriers are tumbling down
The doors between private and public information continue to be shoved open. Whether through intentional and potentially illegal breaches, well planned legal strategies, or unintentional information capture and release, Americans on the information grid are facing new enemies in protecting their private information. The doors are being opened by both the government and private sectors, as laws haven’t kept up or are being interpreted in such a way that the privacy protections we’ve felt to be inherent come tumbling down. Even scarier is that most of us aren’t aware of what information is being captured about us, and when.
Let’s look at some of these perspectives on the breakdown of privacy and discuss their implications for marketers and business people in today’s digital age.
At the macro level, Privacy International and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have ranked the U.S. as an “endemic surveillance society” after looking at a range of factors from constitutional protections to real-world abuses including workplace monitoring, government monitoring and other factors that diminish privacy.
As an example of this, for the fourth year in a row, the FBI has revealed that its “national security letters” have “improperly accessed American telephone records, credit reports and Internet traffic” according to a Yahoo! News report. Recently, former New York Governor Spitzer found his promising political career brought to a halt following the tracking and revelation of his financial activities by a couple of banks leading to a Justice Department investigation and his exposure as the infamous Client # 9.
In the business world, we’ve seen what some people construe as abuse of privacy through activities like Google’s Gmail e-mail software that generates and embeds relevant ads based on content extraction from the subject and content of user’s e-mails. On a related note, The New York Times reports that ComScore has found that large content sites are invisibly capturing significant amounts of behavioral information in the hopes of tailoring the delivery of ads that are supposedly more relevant and focused on our needs and desires. According to the article, some content providers are collecting hundreds of data points on individual user behavior as part of this massive profiling. This capture of data and subsequent micro-targeting of offers has the potential to generate backlash as consumers get spooked by the amount of information companies know about them.
MySpace has received some heat over their microtargeting based on user’s profiles, while Facebook encountered significant user backlash following the implementation of Beacon, a technology platform that mashed up private user data from visits to 44 destinations and revealed this information on their public news feeds. A security researcher found that even if users opted out of the system that Beacon would still “report back to Facebook on member’s activities at third party sites that participate in Beacon even if the users have logged off from Facebook and have declined having their activities broadcast to their Facebook friends” according to PC World author Juan Carlos Perez.
In another scary example of privacy infringement and technology run amuck, a mother who posted 3 family pictures of her children skinny dipping on her Flickr account, and marked them private for viewing by her parents only, found that somehow the private tagging was breached with thousands of outsider views, according to The Washington Post.
So what does this all mean for your organization?
The first thing is for you to be aware of how and why these perceived assaults on privacy are gaining media attention and generating consumer buzz. Consumers are tuning in to the potential for abuse and misuse of private information. Their heightened awareness means that your organization has to be even more careful in deciding how much and what information you will collect, how you will collect it, how it will be aggregated and how and to whom it will be disseminated. If you are going to share this information outside your organization by selling it to others, be sure to reveal this to your site visitors.
Finally, if you are collecting private information, be sure that your technology infrastructure supports this collection and the barriers to access and dissemination of this information beyond its intended use. As the Flickr case described above shows, unintended privacy breaches can occur when technology fails at its intended task.
Remember, the potential for consumer anger to hurt your business will only grow if you aren’t tuned in and managing how and if private information is used as part of your business practices.
Previous articles by Paul Gibler
• Paul Gibler: Widgets – Web components for plug, play, and pay
• Paul Gibler: The expanding world of social networking
• Paul Gibler: Business would be wise to note the resurrection of online ads
• Paul Gibler: 583 reasons to wonder: Is e-mail dead or alive?
• Paul Gibler: Online retailing “tango” is adding some steps
• Outflanking the Google, Yahoo, MSN juggernaut
• Paul Gibler: On the case: Web lessons for connecting with customers
• Paul Gibler: Brand protection in the age of customer engagement
• Wireless wizardry coming to the small screen
• Paul Gibler: Podcasts – time, place, and player shifted media
• Paul Gibler: Virtual communities make online connections
• Paul Gibler: Lights, cameras, action: The state of online video
• Paul Gibler: Joining the wiki wacki world
• Paul Gibler: Would you like your music (and data) mashed?
• Paul Gibler: Cutting through the blog fog
• Paul Gibler: No RSS feed? You’re fired!
• Paul Gibler: Social computing in the Web 2.0 era
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