Saturday, February 18, 2012

Do we crave a lack of privacy?

I have to admit, I was a little shocked when I read the headline How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. As I read the article and the even more fascinating New York Times article it was based on, I was a little surprised at just how much information a corporation could get in addition to your sales history:

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in.

But by the end of the article, I arrived at the same place I always arrive at when privacy advocates fret about Google changing its privacy policy or Facebook mining your data. What's the harm? Target is using all of these complicated maneuvers to send you coupons for things you need at the exact moment you need them. Oh no. And Facebook wants to show you advertisements for things you might actually be interested in. Dammit.

(So why don't I get ads for chocolate?)

This article in Time does list some scarier (though hypothetical) consequences, like employers declining to hire you based on your "likes," and insurance companies declining to insure you based on your food purchases. That would suck. And I like the ideas talked about here of the government forcing ISPs to have a private browsing feature, or other ways of opting out of online tracking.

I'm also frightened of the idea that a stalker, or a government prosecutor or someone else could use all the electronic data on me out there to hurt me personally, but most of what I see is companies using this data in aggregate to find out what 28-year-old women want to buy.

(It's chocolate.)

I guess I feel like our modern level of privacy is a relatively new and kind of unnatural thing. Before, we all lived in tribes or small towns and everybody knew what everybody else was doing most of the time. And perhaps that's what we are craving. That's why so many of us do willingly share our private lives with corporations, like Facebook and Google. Not because we are ignorant to the fact that they are "listening in" but because we crave the connection with our online tribe so much. We want less privacy.

So I'm not happy about all the data mining that goes on out there, but am I deluding myself to think that as long as we are savvy consumers, it's not harmful?

Probably.

After all, I do have an entire website devoted to my innermost feelings....



Here's more information on how people who aren't Facebook can analyze your Facebook data: http://www.webdistortion.com/2010/10/24/datamine-facebook/
And here is a way an advertising industry group has enabled people to see who is tracking them and opt-out: http://www.networkadvertising.org/managing/opt_out.asp

1 comment:

  1. Hey Shasta - I don't recall any FB posts from you about chocolate...maybe you're keeping this passion of yours too private! Let the data miners know and maybe good things like coupons will come your way... :)

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