ALTOM: Invasion of privacy is both positive and avoidable

Tim Altom
August 10, 2013
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Tim Altom

You’re being watched, most probably at this very moment. While you sleep, while you drive, while you buy things. Search engines store data about what you sought online. Online merchants have streams of data about what you bought, what you looked at, what you decided to buy, and where you had it shipped. And that’s not all.

As you browse a variety of e-commerce sites, those sites buy ad space on other sites that show you ads for what you just looked at originally, but on another site. Your browsing followed you from site to site.

Most people enable their cell phones’ GPS beacons, so data is constantly flowing into various databases about where you are and where you’ve been. Your tweets, Facebook chatter, and other online materials are gathered up and analyzed.

On both a social level and an individual one, you’re being tracked 24 hours a day, every day, even when you’re home sick and in bed. Various databases can figure out that you haven’t ventured outside, and to some extent even what sort of illness you might have.

You know what I say to all this?

Good. I like it.

All of this tracking has solid commercial benefits, both for me personally and for the merchants I patronize. Using the mass of what’s come to be called “Big Data,” merchants and manufacturers can quickly spot trends, optimize product mixes and store layouts, and even identify poor locations or misbehaving employees.

Doing text analysis of online comments can force businesses both online and offline to re-examine what they’re communicating to the outside world. It’s hooking the customer straight to the producer. Many of us are exposing our commentary to the world, while an increasing number of businesses are quietly listening to it. There are even medical “listening posts” that gather online comments about illnesses so they can find pockets of outbreaks. Never before have we been able to understand our society so thoroughly.

On the personal end, major companies are working furiously on ways to market straight to you. Not to people like you, or people who resemble you. To you. Personally. This isn’t a new concept, of course. Companies have long tried to identify groups of people likely to buy their products and have gathered or purchased data to help find them.

But the data companies gather today lets them shrink the target group until it looks like you, and only you. Marketers have long complained that, as the saying goes, they waste some 50 percent of their ad dollars but can never predict which 50. Today the push is on to target that ad dollar directly to each consumer specifically, based on what they know about him or her.

Amazon does this brilliantly with its extremely effective recommendation engine. Thanks to tracking both my browsing habits and my purchases, Amazon can pinpoint the products I’m most likely to consider. It’s up to me whether I buy or not, of course. Nobody, not even Amazon, can command my wallet but me.

Other companies will send out email reminders that I left items in an abandoned online shopping cart. And many will buy ad space on sites that become filled with the very recommendations I saw on the previous site, as if the merchant is tagging along after me from site to site.

I don’t resent it. I’m impressed. I’m a modern American, used to being dogged by persistent advertising. It doesn’t bother me, and I can take advantage of it any time I like.

The upshot is that I’m being very well served by what many perceive to be a lack of privacy. Other commentators see the constant collection of information about me as always intrusive. I see it generally as a boon. If I want to evade detection, I simply leave my cell at home and pay cash at brick-and-mortar stores. There’s no big trick to going off the grid. But it’s not nearly as convenient or helpful as being plugged in. I like how merchants are increasingly catering to me personally.

Of course, there are disturbing aspects to being tracked, and those have been hashed in the media lately in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations. If it chooses to, the government can quickly learn what I read online, what I buy, where I go, and who I talk to, all without telling me about it. The potential for political or criminal repression is real and frightening.

But what often goes unsaid is how massive the upside of tracking is for both our society and ourselves. We are being offered more interesting products, more quickly, than ever before. Being tracked and served is a triumph of capitalism, just as it’s simultaneously an unprecedented threat to liberty

The question is not whether we want to be followed, but if we’re willing to enjoy the benefits while being conscious of the risks.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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