Tag Archives: Information privacy

We’ve Been Robbed

An important, thought-provoking piece today from Roger McNamee in the NY Times. It’s entitled A Brief History of How Your Privacy Was Stolen and it raises some disturbing issues which concern – or should concern – us all. Mr. McNamee is a long-time tech investor and author. “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe” is his book and I think the title gives you a sense about his concerns, especially since he was an early investor in and advisor to Facebook.

This is the gist of his position:

Why it is legal for service providers to comb our messages and documents for economically valuable data? Why is it legal for third parties to trade in our most private information, including credit card transactions, location and health data, and browsing history? Why is it legal to gather any data at all about minors? Why is it legal to trade predictions of our behavior?

Good questions, and if you’re not concerned by the answers or the implications of the questions themselves, here are a few things to consider. First, go to Facebook, click under “settings” and look at the “Ads” tab. Scroll down a bit and open up the line that says “advertisers and businesses.” There you will see a list of all the companies that uploaded your email or phone onto Facebook so they could serve you ads. The companies listed have run ads in the last 7 days containing your information. Scroll down and keep opening the “see more” rows. I quit when I got over 500 companies. Most were companies – car dealers and realtors – with which I’d had no dealings. Why do they have my information? Of course, I’m aware of list brokers but why would a car dealer in Arizona pay for my information? That’s their issue; mine is that they have it.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve given Facebook and others way more information than I have. I use the DuckDuckGo search engine so my search history is private. I’ve locked down my browser so the “bugs” from Facebook, Twitter, and others don’t follow me. You can start by disabling the “ad settings” on the Facebook “ad” tab you’re on. That’s only a small part of the issue.

Anyone who is paying attention to China has seen the rise of a totalitarian “Big Brother” state built around constant surveillance. In 2015, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security announced it was looking to implement an “omnipresent, completely connected, always on and fully controllable” network using facial recognition systems and CCTV hardware. It’s largely in place. What does this have to do with you?

Google, Facebook, and others know pretty much everything about you. Where you’ve been, your friends, your shopping habits, etc. McNamee’s point that “Platforms are under no obligation to protect user privacy. They are free to directly monetize the information they gather by selling it to the highest bidder” underscores the problem. What happens when the highest bidder has nefarious intent? What if it’s the government? What if your insurance company wants to raise your rate because you’re buying fast-food and cookies?

I make it a point to do unpredictable things every so often to mess with whatever algorithm is paying attention. That can be as simple as shopping for products in which I have no interest or “liking” something that I really don’t. Sometimes I wish that we could put the tech genie back in the bottle, even if it’s a bottle I had a hand in opening in some small way.

Read the McNamee piece and tell me what you think, ok?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?, Reality checks

You Want Anonymity With That?

It’s Foodie Friday and today we have yet another example of how privacy is dead, this time from the food world. OK, I might be a little paranoid here but I think I can see the future in how McDonald’s sees the future and it scares me. Let me explain and then you can weigh in on my thinking.

What Mickey D has done is buy an Artifical Intelligence company. They intend to use the AI to adjust the menu in the drive-through as you pull up. The thinking is that these adjustments will cause you to buy more. You know – promoting cold drinks on hot days or suggesting items that are faster to prepare if the kitchen is in the weeds to keep food orders flowing. It gets scary when the menu changes as you order, suggesting sides after you order your burger.

Now you may see nothing wrong with this. After all, Amazon does this all the time. So does Netflix, suggesting things to you that you should find of interest based on your past behavior. That’s not scary until McDonald’s installs license plate readers and begins associating your food order with your vehicle. Of course, it’s also possible that they could obtain a listing of every device that was in their drive-through. By the hour. Cross-reference that to available phone directories and automobile registrations and NOW how do you feel?

It’s yet another step down the road to full surveillance capitalism, at least in my paranoid mind. There are benefits, no doubt, to McDonald’s, and I’m sure they will be followed by others (maybe even others buying their systems from McDonald’s AI company). Do you really think there are benefits to us, however? I think trust and privacy are going to become even bigger issues for consumers and regulators over the next 12 months and if you’re not thinking that way, you just might be making a mistake.

What happens when Mickey D sells their frequency of use data to the insurance company who then raises your rates because you eat fast food all the time? Sure, when you roll into The Golden Arches while you’re 250 miles from home, it might be nice that they already know what you’d like, but I’d rather have anonymity. You?

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Filed under food, Huh?

Pew, Privacy, and You

I think we all know that Big Brother is watching.  Putting aside what the government may or may not be doing (no politics here!), most people are aware that every move of their digital lives is cataloged, analyzed, and might be sold to someone.  The Pew folks released a study about how we (Americans) feel about that.  In Pew’s words: 

While many Americans are willing to share personal information in exchange for tangible benefits, they are often cautious about disclosing their information and frequently unhappy about what happens to that information once companies have collected it… Many people expressed concerns about the safety and security of their personal data in light of numerous high-profile data breaches. They also regularly expressed anger about the barrage of unsolicited emails, phone calls, customized ads or other contacts that inevitably arises when they elect to share some information about themselves.

Let’s drill down a bit.  The phrase “context-specific and contingent” is a good one to guide us as we think about how to set up a mutually beneficial relationship with the consumer.  First, what benefit is the visitor deriving from giving me their information?  Is it content?  If so, is that content so unique and of such high-quality that they feel it’s an equal exchange or is it just commodity content, something reprinted from some other source?  That contextual decision isn’t yours, by the way: it’s the consumer’s.

Second, what happens to that data after the consumer surrenders it?  Do consumers feel you are a trustworthy repository for their information or are you selling it to anyone regardless of what that third party’s intentions are? The consumer’s initial value exchange with you might be fine, but the subsequent actions by someone else may render that satisfaction null and void. Even if you’re retaining the data, are you doing “creepy” things with it such as constantly remarketing to the consumer so they feel as if they have a stalker in their lives?

While people are used to the notion that privacy is a disappearing concept (for better or for worse), that fact doesn’t mean that they don’t care.  As Pew found, they do care.  I think there is always room for a company to gain an advantage by being transparent and respectful about how they are using the data consumers share with them.  You?

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Filed under digital media, Helpful Hints

Watching You Watch

Welcome back, and I hope everyone had a restful and joyous holiday season.  I spent some of it watching TV and you probably did as well.  Of course, depending on what brand of TV you have or what apps you use, other people may have been watching you watch TV.  OK, maybe not exactly watching you, but they’re well aware of what you were watching as well as who you are.  The point today isn’t to make you more paranoid than you might already be.  It’s to  make you aware of where things are and are heading and to take a step back and ask you (and myself) if this is really where we ought to be taking our business activities. 

Let’ start with the TV.  If you own a number of brands of internet-connected TV (a smart TV), the TV is logging and reporting what you watch as well as your IP address.  That information can then have demography and purchasing information integrated from third-party databases because it isn’t hard to figure out who someone is from their IP address.  Once you connect your phone to that IP address (you do so when you attach to the home wi-fi), it’s possible to connect where you are as well as all of the other information a mobile device contains.  In other words, your purchase of, say, a Vizio TV makes you an extremely visible and valuable commodity: a consumer with known habits and an addressable means through which to access them.  I’m not hypothesizing.  If you own a Vizio and haven’t opted out, you’re being tracked.

It’s not just the TV’s themselves.  There is a lawsuit going on.  It was brought by Samba TV against its rival Alphonso. The two companies provide TV analytics and second-screen targeting capabilities.  What’s interesting to me is what it reveals about their methodologies, which involve targeting users on their mobile devices with relevant content based on their TV viewing.  How would they know what you’re watching?  One uses the set top box but the other uses the mic on your phone (who doesn’t have it with them these days) to listen to the TV.  That capability is in more than 5,000 apps, including some big ones.  You give the app permission to use your mic for some purpose (maybe to record a video) but once it has that permission, it can listen.

My question is this.  Do we really think consumers are aware of this?  If they’re not, aren’t we as an industry responsible for letting them know what’s going on?  After all, the two examples above are not part of the content value exchange we discuss sometimes (you give me your attention and I give you free content).  A consumer PAID for that TV and yet the manufacturer is continuing to monetize that customer without their knowledge.  The consumer might have an awareness that a free app is monetizing them but they presume it’s through advertising.  Do you think they know the app is listening to their TV watching and passing on a record of what’s being watched to a third party?

Here is the first of my 2016 predictions: this stuff will stop or some laws will be passed to make it stop.  Transparency of data gathering and usage will expand a lot as consumer backlash heats up.  What do you think?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

A $24 Billion Secret

If you use any sort of connected device – a computer, a tablet, or a cell phone – you’re probably (hopefully, anyway) aware that someone is watching.  Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it’s accurate.  Everything you do, and everywhere you go if it’s a mobile device, is logged, along with some sort of device identifier.  It’s not hard to link a device with a person and that person with behaviors.  That’s really what the targeted advertising business is about.  

In that context, this article from Ad Age shouldn’t come as a real shock, but it’s always a little disconcerting to get a glimpse inside the factory where they make the sausage:

Under the radar, Verizon, Sprint, Telefonica and other carriers have partnered with firms including SAP, IBM, HP and AirSage to manage, package and sell various levels of data to marketers and other clients. It’s all part of a push by the world’s largest phone operators to counteract diminishing subscriber growth through new business ventures that tap into the data that showers from consumers’ mobile web surfing, text messaging and phone calls.

That’s why Verizon bought AOL and some ad tech companies, paying over $4.5 Billion for them.  Think that’s a wise investment?  Well, the global market for telco data as a service is potentially worth $24.1 billion this year, so it seems like it might be to me.  What’s less wise is that most consumers have no clue that all of this information about them – their surfing habits, their travel habits, potentially numbers they’re constantly texting, etc – are being packaged and sold without their consent.  Oh sure – when you sign the contract to use any of the carriers there is a lengthy terms of service agreement you probably clicked right through, and it contained language that said your data may be anonymized and aggregated and sold.  I’m not sure most people understand what that means in real terms.  Try getting phone service without agreeing.

Unlike most apps, which are opt-in, you really have no choice about this.  Are there benefits to the consumer?  Maybe.  In theory, you don’t see ads for things in which you have no interest, and you don’t get information about companies and services that aren’t in your area.   There is a huge downside, however, aside from the creepy factor.  Hackers can steal information that might allow them to know when your home is vacant on a daily basis, for example.  In fact, this sort of thing doesn’t go on in the E.U. countries because of the strict data protections those countries enforce.

The “tell” I see is that the phone companies don’t want to discuss this data business and the revenues they make from selling off our data.  If there wasn’t something nefarious going on, why isn’t it more out in the open?  Maybe if we all knew what was being gathered (300 cellphone events per day per subscriber by some counts), we’d be more curious?  Maybe we’d take steps, as some of us do with tracking blockers on the web, to maintain control of our own data?  What do you think?

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Filed under Huh?


Sometimes I think that every advancement in technology is made simply to facilitate advertising.  I’m pretty sure that the marketing community sees it that way.  I don’t know about you but I saw the first ads on my Snapchat stream last week and I read a piece ruminating about programmatic ads on watches. To place an ad these days you want data from the device or screen user and more often than not the user had no clue what data is being captured to feed the marketing beast.

I’ll say upfront that I’ve worked in and around marketing for almost 40 years so I get the attention/value equation.  What digital has done is to change that equation, since we’re really not simply measuring the users’ attention but we’re learning a lot more about the users themselves, way more than we ever knew from media measured by panels.  The more you know about what marketers know, the creepier it gets.

Consumers are waking up.  The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania released a study called “The Tradeoff Fallacy –  How Marketers Are Misrepresenting American Consumers And Opening Them Up to Exploitation.”  From the introduction:

New Annenberg survey results indicate that marketers are misrepresenting a large majority of Americans by claiming that Americans give out information about themselves as a tradeoff for benefits they receive. To the contrary, the survey reveals most Americans do not believe that ‘data for discounts’ is a square deal. The findings also suggest, in contrast to other academics’ claims, that Americans’ willingness to provide personal information to marketers cannot be explained by the public’s poor knowledge of the ins and outs of digital commerce. In fact, people who know more about ways marketers can use their personal information are more likely rather than less likely to accept discounts in exchange for data when presented with a real-life scenario.

The study goes on to detail how an overwhelming percentage of consumers do NOT believe that stalking them and grabbing personal information is a fair trade for the value they receive.  The reason they don’t stop using the services doing so is not because they approve of and appreciate the trade but because they don’t see an alternative.

Maybe it’s time we asked ourselves if identifying the individual consumer and stalking them everywhere (even on their wrist!) is the best way to drive sales or build a relationship with them.  Perhaps we need to do a better job of creating strong brand messages and allowing the consumer to come to us instead of us popping up everywhere?

84 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that they wanted to have control over what marketers could learn about them. 65 percent agreed that they had come to accept that they had little control over it.  We wonder why ad blocking is becoming the norm?  When companies ask for information they don’t need to deliver their product or service, every other company’s ability to get the data they do need is compromised.  For example, the Uber app is grabbing location data even when the app isn’t being used to call for a car.  Stalking at its worst.

Read the study and have a think about it.  While we do need to know about our consumer and engage in conversation with them, none of us want to be stalkers.  Any thoughts on how we can strike that balance?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media