Privacy Matters

17 11 2011

When you’re the biggest buck in the woods, you make an easy target. Size alone says that bullets have a greater chance of hitting something.

Which is why Facebook is once again being attacked for tracking users. Poor Facebook. Maybe it was just born with a bullseye for a birthmark.

Or was it?

Having 800 million users worldwide is enough to raise eyebrows. That’s almost one-half of the world’s people who have internet access. The only problem, as the latest critique alleges, is that Facebook knows everything you do. Everything. Including every website you visit. Where. When. How.

FastCompany Magazine puts Facebook among Amazon, Google and Apple as the four most powerful companies, with a coming tech war to determine who prevails. Still privately held (maybe next year for an IPO?), Facebook is forecast to have ad sales of $4 billion this year. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Google’s $30 billion, Amazon’s sales of $40 billion, and Apple’s insane revenues of $20-30 billion. Per quarter. Yeah.

So why all the fuss about a distant fourth-place contender for total global domination?

It all boils down to information, and specifically, information that can be used to either sell to third parties, or lure those third parties to advertise directly. To you. And me.

Which explains why Google is nervously trying to get Google+ to work right, because if it fails in its third social media attempt, it virtually concedes a longer term victory to Facebook. All the information that Facebooks collects via tracking cookies will soon translate into enormous ad sales.

What has everyone nervous is that we all opted in to this arrangement. The sneaky Terms Of Service (TOS) agreement we all click without reading basically says we give Facebook the right to do whatever it darn well pleases. To make matters worse for privacy advocates, we live in a country that offers very little privacy. The burden of protection is more likely to be on the individual than on corporations, society or government. Step outdoors and you are in the arena of full public disclosure. Don’t want to be photographed? Stay indoors.

The same can be said of venturing online.

Of course, it is not like this in all other countries. Germany has very strict privacy laws. In fact, Google was thwarted there with its Google Maps project, because Germany apparently grants imagery rights to the view of one’s house (as well as its location). In the US, for the sake of contrast, I can click my way down your street, find your home, and then jump over to the county appraisal district’s website to see how much it is worth and if you paid your taxes.

We have until 31st of December to pay them without interest and/or penalty. Just make a note of it.

But we don’t live in Germany, which is why I still do not understand why everyone continues to get so up in arms over Facebook or any other company’s use of tracking cookies. Sure, we can bark at companies and urge them to raise their standards, but they are only under the pressure of public vitriol, not law. Maybe if enough people barked, something might change. But I wouldn’t count on it. Maybe what people need to be doing is pressuring their legislators to look, not at Facebook, but at existing law. Do new laws need to be written? Do old laws need to be amended?

Even then, I’m not sure what that says about our society if we shift from caveat emptor to caveat vendor. It might say that we the people concede the point, and have gone from powerful to powerless. Maybe the OWS people really are on to something here.

But from a purely marketing perspective, I can only imagine advertisers drooling over the prospects of ever more fine-tuned information which will allow them to target me (and you) with the precisions of a professional marksman. Advertisers would likely pay more for information that would allow them to advertise more effectively, rather than waste money preaching to the masses. Why use a shotgun when there’s a rifle nearby?

As for me, I accept the risks of using Facebook (never mind all those rogue viruses lurking behind friend’s posts to my wall). I understand that I assumed that risk when I signed up. I recognize that their iPhone app is the most popular app in the iTunes store, and that it can gather even more identifying information about me than I could ever begin to imagine. I get it that Facebook wants to know every other website I visit. And I know that it knows that I know that it knows all of this.

Ponder that, Mr. Zuckerberg. Just be careful out in the woods. It’s open season on big companies these days. And that is a bummer of a birthmark.

Dr “Hound Of The Far Side” Gerlich



One response

17 11 2011
Patrick Bolwahnn

Dr. Hound,
This is nothing really new. Walmart has been doing this for years in reference to collecting personal and shopping information on you. Everytime we shop at Walmart and use a check or credit card, our information is collected. What we buy, what we like, and is matrixed out to what we are likely to buy. Inventory is caculated, stocked, placed in specific stores, store layout changed, and prices are fixed all based on this information.

If you want to compare and contrast the Walmart at 45th and Coulter verses Walmart at Grand (both in Amarillo Tx) – product selection is different, an even pricing on the same product is different all based on the information collected by walmart each time we shop. The demographic information and social economic area are gathered and tabulated to make it as efficient and cost effective as possible. Ultimately saving us money – Right?

Our Utility company is now doing this as well. The are collecting data on our house and usage of the services they provide. They can even tell by the power signature what appliance you most likely have and when they are in use. Police have utilized this information to prove a suspect was at home or disprove a defendants alibi.

So what is the difference? The difference is that we physically walk into Walmart and shop. Whereas, we tend to be at home or on our smart phone with somewhat a relative expectancy of privacy. But until we unplug, those days are long gone.


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