Privacy control of growing importance to user experience

A few months back, WSJ had done a series exposing the way advertising firms and websites were handling peoples’ information with one another. What came out was that there is some highly questionable activity going on with peoples’ private information and information about their computer activity. But is anyone really surprised?

In 1980, author David Burnham published “a chilling account of the computer’s threat to society” in his book The Rise of the Computer State (Vintage). In chapters 3, 4, & 6 he writes about computer databases and how they impose on our privacy, information becomes power, and about how these things affect our values and social norms. It’s a difficult read, but in the book you will see Burnham’s almost gloomy vision for how computer information systems will affect society…which in some ways can be, well, a bit glum.

In the series, WSJ uncovers questionable practices being carried out between companies that go as far as some advertisers acquiring two things that separately are much less of a concern than when they come together: a.) your personal contact information such as name, address, and phone number, coupled with b.) your “likes”, tastes, preferences, and online behavior or activity.

100 Million Households in Top US Marketing Databases.

For some of us, this is not all that bad. I personally take the attitude that who I am as a citizen and a consumer is public information, and in return I expect to be surrounded by things I prefer anyway. But that doesn’t mean I want everyone, or every business entity to have my personal contact information. This is where it gets tricky.

See, we are so used to receiving stuff in the mail that we did not ask for that we not only tolerate it, we expect it. And because we expect it, we actually sort through it, cherry pick the things we like and discard what we don’t. But that doesn’t mean it is “OK” for companies to solicit to us in this way. It’s not. It’s intrusive.

Now with email and mobile, most of what we receive is wanted because we have chosen or “opted-in” to receive it. Granted not everybody knows how to minimize the amount of crap you can receive via email, but with the right practices both online and off, you can keep unwanted email and mobile communications to a minimum. With email and mobile, you have a bit more control. Advertising is less intrusive and more chosen.

In the world of mobile, there is no anonymity. 

Clearly we could go on and on about the controversy these practices stir and the lack of laws or inadequate laws to protect citizens and consumers from slimy activities, but WSJ did that so if you want to read about all that you can, by starting here.

I imagine that a new era will arise where websites designed to offer visitors a more private experience and with control of who receives what information will gain appeal and interest among users, thus jeopardizing the ability for sites to attract members when they are not sensitive to the protection of user privacy. Facebook offers users a lot of control, but there are serious loopholes in this that if you are not aware of then you should probably read the WSJ series “What They Know.”

It’s all public and it’s electronically mineable. 

Apple offers a level of customer privacy to iPhone and iPad users by giving them the choice of whether or not to share their personal contact information with merchants at the AppStore. The fact that Apple can exclude this information by choice from the merchant has its own critics and controversies, but iPhone and iPad users sure aren’t complaining. Why would anyone not want that control?

This is the point. The dark side of computer information systems is that companies can gain access to data that can be used to manipulate. And that is not right. By giving people a choice in what they share and with whom, websites, communities, and networks have a key attribute that can be highly appealing.

Placing the controls in the hands of users brings on a whole new dimension in advertising.


About the Author

Ryan Gerardi
Creative, resourceful, and resilient B2B sales and marketing technologist who works with people and businesses on a variety of levels to help elevate their game, their brand, and their businesses.
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