It’s Not Fair! Living In A Glass House

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Several months ago we were presenting to a group of teens at a local high school. As usual, most sat there politely and listened as I described a marketing research practice known as scraping. As I detailed the information that can be collected from users surfing their favorite websites, I heard a synchronized gasp followed by, “That’s not fair.”

As  parents we all have heard those proclamations before. “It’s not fair that I gotta be in by 10:00pm.”  Or, “It’s not fair that she gets to go to the movies.” And then there’s the “It’s not fair that I have to clean my room.” However, in this situation, I certainly empathized with their collective responses.

I offered little in the way of consultation — suggesting, “When you’re on the web or using your smart phone, you’re living in a glass house. You can see out — but everyone can also see in.”

I had been in the media and technology fields most of my life. In fact, I had worked on projects in the past that analyzed the potential data that can be collected by web users on an ISP network — or that use versions of web-mail.  In the end, our company, and many of our competitors rightly opted to always protect the privacy of the customer. However, the money that was offered to ISP’s to provide that data was staggering — and to some tempting.

Why do marketers want this information? Well, as someone once told me, “If you don’t know someone’s motivation – the answer is generally MONEY.”

 There is tremendous value to every action that you take on the web. The combination of your IP address and surfing activity could tell a web marketer where you live, your income, your recreational activity, religion and political affiliation – all under the auspices of serving you relevant ads as you peruse the web.  In reality, this “behavioral targeting” can improve your overall web experience. For example: If you’re a forty-year old male living in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas who enjoys sports, camping and Toby Keith – you probably don’t want to view ads that relate to a teen girl living in Buffalo, New York that enjoys dancing, makeup, and Justin Bieber.  To that end, you generally will be served ads that relate to a forty-year old, male sports and country music enthusiast living in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas.

But wouldn’t it be nice if you had the option to give permission for this data to be collected?

As reported in the Wall Street Journal’s WHAT THEY KNOW series,  tracking files signify a new paradigm in marketing based on the surveillance of web users and the subsequent sale of that data.

As the The Journal suggested, “ Web users are in effect exchanging personal data for the broad access to information and services that is a defining feature of the Internet.”

One very popular news and entertainment site was targeted by The Journal. In their test they discovered that the site planted a tracking file that provided an estimate of a surfer’s age, their zip code and gender in addition to a code that provided estimates of their income, marital status, family size, and home ownership.

All of this tracking is accomplished by small files known as “cookies,” Each time a user visits a website, a cookie is often placed on their computer.  And in the United States, our courts have ruled this action to be legal.

My own experience with this site – which had been my default browser page  —  is that after one day of surfing, I had collected over 3000 cookies on my PC.  Since reading this article I now use software that automatically deletes the files before I exit the system.

Beyond slowing your computer down, the bigger issue is the personal data that can be gathered and sold to others. For example. If you have an allegiance to a particular political party, would you want your political perspective shared with a hiring manager that perhaps is of the opposite opinion? Moreover, do you want more ads sent your way from the opposite party?

My wife clicked the LIKE icon on Facebook a few months ago related to a certain political candidate. Since then she has been besieged with ads and emails from that particular presidential candidate. She received so much unrequested information; she has since questioned how much she really “likes” that candidate.

Another very “real” scenario that occurs every day in corporate America relates again to Facebook. Today 83% percent of corporations review an applicant’s Facebook page before they make a formal offer to the candidate. There is no conniving marketing company surreptitiously working in the background trying to unearth your darkest secrets. No… The information is gathered freely by the information that you share publicly on Facebook.

We’ll look into this issue in other blogs, but for now, take a look at this video produced by NBC NEWS on how corporations use Facebook to filter out potential employee candidates. You’ll hopefully think twice before posting pictures of your “Family Barbeque” that got out of hand.


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