Free content is not without a cost.
As our lives have become more digitally enmeshed with content, immersive entertainment and devices, the economic bargain that makes it possible has gone largely unnoticed. Simply put, the collection, analysis and sharing of personal data is driving the digital economy. Mobile applications (Apps), digital content and entertainment – from TV shows to games – are available for “free” but subsidized by income from online ads that are customized using data about customers. Vendors, advertisers and platforms compete for “eyeballs” based, in part, on the quality of the information they possess about users to whom the ads are targeted.
Across this interconnected landscape of users, content providers and devices, the issue of online privacy has become a major talking point for app developers, marketers, consumers and legislators. Recently, a wide range of stakeholders, from large institutions to smaller developers, have been accused of mishandling personal data. As the volume of public debate has increased, legislators have introduced a raft privacy initiatives. The Obama administration has called for a Privacy Bill of Rights, an industry consortium of leading web sites and search engines has proposed its own privacy best practices and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a consumer-oriented Mobile User Privacy Bill of Rights.
Part 1 of this article looks at several recent and high-profile revelations about how personal information is collected and used, often without the user’s knowledge and consent. Part 2 discusses the legal risks faced by vendors that don’t take adequate precautions to protect consumer privacy and Part 3 concludes with strategies and tactics that help leverage the power of personalization while avoiding the pitfalls of privacy and data security.
1. The current state of information gathering
The scope of personal information gathered is unprecedented and largely unknown. For years, “free” web-based content has been available because of the implicit compromise between content providers and content consumers. Advances in technology have made it easier to track a user’s web browsing habits, mobile browsing habits, and even real-time geospatial location (check in apps and GPS). In the last few months, we have learned that some apps not only gather this mostly non-personally-identifiable data, but also upload a user’s address book contacts and even photos.
On Wednesday Feb. 2012, software Developer Arun Thampi “outed” Path, the purveyor of a self-titled journaling app, for sending users’ address book contents to the company. Path lets users share what they’re doing with a select group of friends and gives users the option to find friends on the app through contacts or other social networks. Thampi disclosed the clandestine data transfer in a blog post after discovering that his phone’s entire address book, including full names and e-mail addresses, was being sent to Path without his explicit consent. According to Path, this data was necessary to in order to quickly notify users when people they know join Path.
Not too long ago, Google earned itself a similar PR (and legal) black eye when it launched its social network, Google Buzz, in 2010 through its Gmail web-based email product. At launch, users were not informed that the identity of individuals they emailed most frequently would be made public by default. Google Buzz automatically disclosed the email addresses of a user’s contacts by default. Google settled with the FTC over allegations that Google used deceptive practices and violated its own privacy policies.
On Feb 17 2012, WSJ reported that Google Inc. and other advertising companies have been bypassing the privacy settings of millions of people using Apple Inc.’s Web browser on their iPhones and computers—tracking the Web-browsing habits of people who intended for that kind of monitoring to be blocked. The companies used special computer code that tricks Apple’s Safari Web-browsing software into letting them monitor many users. Safari, the most widely used browser on mobile devices, is designed to block such tracking by default.
A major topic for discussion just this week is the “Target Snafu.” As originally reported in the New York Times, Target used customer data and predictive analytics to determine that one of their customers was pregnant, and even her specific trimester. The girl’s father learned of the pregnancy when the retailer emailed her promotional material and coupons.
It used to take days or even weeks to gather, synthesize and extrapolate data about a customer’s buying habits and receptiveness to particular products or services. Now it takes milliseconds. A targeted ad can be sourced and served in the time it takes to hit “refresh” on a web browser. Companies are using massive amounts of data to predict what their customers are going to want next. More importantly, gathering that data is getting easier, cheaper and more ubiquitous as the source of that data moves from the desktop to mobile devices.