Stephen Baker

The Numerati
Home - posts tagged as Privacy

The privacy pay-off: What happened?
January 26, 2010Privacy

Last summer I pitched a BusinessWeek story to be called The Privacy Pay-off. The idea was that enlightened companies would figure out how to market data privacy, and they would use it to give themselves a competitive advantage. Instead of cloaking what they did with cookies and personal data behind virtually unreadable (and unread) privacy policies, they would promote these policies with utter clarity.

The idea? These privacy-savvy companies would gain the trust of consumers. And with that trust, they would win access to ever more data, which they could use to provide customized services.

I never wrote the story. I blame this on two things. First, BusinessWeek was on the block, suitors were circling, and I was distracted. Far more important, I never found good examples of companies angling for the privacy pay-off. Do you know any?

In any case, I did lots of reporting. Before it all goes rotten, I'll be blogging bits and pieces of it, and perhaps incorporating strands of it into larger stories. I used some of it for a post I wrote yesterday, What Does Google Know about You?, on the Smart Data Collective. (According to my agreement with the site, I write one exclusive post per month.)


I went into New York yesterday for a BusinessWeek reunion near Times Square. It had rained most of the day, and as I walked up from Penn Station I focused on some of the puddles...

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Workplace surveillance: Get used to it
December 15, 2009Privacy

Am I getting jaded? I read this case on GigaOm and Mashable about a case in which a local government claims the right to monitor messages on a government-issued pager. My first reaction: If you're sending digital messages on machinery issued by an employer, assume that they'll be monitored.

Further, even if the Supreme Court reviews this case and rules for the privacy of the individual, continue to assume that employers will monitor this information. It's simply too valuable to ignore.

Look at it this way. Companies are busy defending themselves and their networks. They're sifting through emails looking for spam, leaks of insider information, and signs of sexual harassment. Google's Postini unit does this type of analysis. What's more, for compliance with federal laws and security regulations, companies must archive communications. And they can be sued if signs of malfeasance are coursing through their networks unnoticed.

So they're supposed to carry out all of this analysis and then turn a blind eye to allegedly sexually explicit messages sent from a company-issued machine? It's not going to happen. We're under all kinds of questionable surveillance in the rest of our lives. Companies like Acxiom and LexisNexis maintain dossiers on us. Government techno-spies have been analyzing e-mail, Web surfing and phone communications since 9/11.

But surveillance in the work place? In my view, that comes with the job. As I say, maybe I'm jaded.

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danah boyd: Who benefits from Web privacy?
December 11, 2009Privacy

Just watched a very provocative talk by Microsoft's danah boyd at LeWeb. (Here's the text, video below) She shifts the usual perspective on the privacy debate and asks if society should be paying more attention to people who appear to be crying out for help on line.

Back in the '60s and '70s, she says, adults enjoyed a right to privacy, which sometimes included spousal abuse in the privacy of the home. If wives and other victims didn't call for help or circulate showing conspicuous bruises, it might have seemed that domestic abuse wasn't a big problem. Now we know more about it. But does that mean that it's growing, or that people's privacy is being invaded?

Much the same is happening online. Some parents, boyd says, are encountering online bullying and blaming the Internet for it. But this bullying, according to boyd (who doesn't capitalize her name), only makes visible what has long existed in the analog world as spoken taunts and rumors.

So the question is whether society has an obligation to pay attention to the pain expressed publicly on the Internet, the pain, anger, and alienation. If people are crying out on the networks we circulate on and we turn away, are we like the New Yorkers who allegedly ignored the cries for help from Kitty Genovese as she was stabbed to death 45 years ago? "What does it mean to create digital eyes on the street?" boyd asks.

And how would we pay attention? Would we send bots crawling through MySpace and blogs, focusing on patterns and key words associated with pain, suicide and abuse? This could be a privacy nightmare, and boyd doesn't broach that angle. But it's something society is sure to be wrestling with.

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Google dashboard: Does it enhance privacy?
November 5, 2009Privacy

With a new Google dashboard, unveiled yesterday in Spain, we'll be able to monitor the information Google has about us in its various applications, from gmail to YouTube. This is the kind of disclosure privacy advocates have been calling for. I think it will enhance Google's reputation--and entice us to share more data with them (which may be the ultimate goal).

I also think this new dashboard will help Google get a better look at each one of us. Here's why. Last summer, I was having a not-for-attribution chat with a senior Google official. I asked him what Google knew about me. He told me that within Google's data centers, there were gazillionss of data bits about all of the company's users, their searches, click, emails, YouTube uploads, etc. But he said it would be loads of work to bring all of this data together and build individual profiles. What's more, it would require lots of computing, and there wasn't a clear business model for it.

I just got a clarification from Google:

Its not an individual profile of the different products and doesn't correlate the data.  Instead, the Dashboard was designed to scan the different products and services you use for a summary of the user data they each store individually.  The Dashboard does not access raw data from the services, does not correlate any cross services data and it does not collect or store any additional user data.  And when refreshing or closing your Dashboard page, all data is removed from the Dashboard.

But now, there appears to be a model. To address privacy concerns, Google appears to be bringing together much of that data. And once they have it, they're much closer to a coherent look at each one of us. Perhaps there's still not a business model for such personalized data. It'll be a while before advertisers can come up with 500 million customized pitches. But who knows what correlations Google will find between our various activities. And if this dashboard generates trust, the pickings should grow even richer.

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How do you delete a file on the cloud?
September 11, 2009Privacy

Let's say you put something really embarrassing on Google docs. Maybe you wake up the next morning with a vague memory of it, and then hurry to delete it. What happens to that file. Does it really get deleted? Bruce Schneier, the security expert, says no.

As we move more of our data onto cloud computing platforms such as Gmail and Facebook, and closed proprietary platforms such as the Kindle and the iPhone, deleting data is much harder.

You have to trust that these companies will delete your data when you ask them to, but they're generally not interested in doing so. Sites like these are more likely to make your data inaccessible than they are to physically delete it. Facebook is a known culprit: actually deleting your data from its servers requires a complicated procedure that may or may not work. And even if you do manage to delete your data, copies are certain to remain in the companies' backup systems. Gmail explicitly says this in its privacy notice.

This reminds me of Jonah Lehrer's description of our brain's method for deleting. He says that we don't actually forget things. Every single memory remains chemically encoded in our brains, which are virtually limitless hard disks. What happens is that we forget how to find our forgotten memories.  (It's kind of like me with my keys or the ear-phones to my iPod. I don't actually lose them. I just don't know where the hell they are...)

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Would you trade your personal data for free stuff?
May 6, 2009Privacy

It's no secret that a lot of survey results depend on the questions. A case in point is the study by Q Interactive that Steve Smith cites on Behavioral Targeting Insider.

Asked if they would prefer "to receive free online services and information in exchange for the use of my data to target relevant advertising to me," 53.6% of Boomer-aged 45-to-55-year-olds agreed, and 63.2% of 1-to-24-year-olds agreed.

Imagine how they would have answered this question: Would you let companies use your personal data so that they can provide free online services and target you with more relevant advertisements?

Despite that quibble, there's lots of interesting data in this study--some of it a bit worrisome for behavioral advertisers. For example: "The survey found 77.8% willing to give zip code, 64.9% their age and 72.3% their gender, but only 22.4% said they wanted to share the Web sites they visited..." In other words, they're least willing to share the very data that behavioral advertisers scoop up by the terabyte.

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Google street view rankles UK villagers
April 3, 2009Privacy

It reads like a British version of Paul Revere's ride. When Google's camera truck came into the British village of Buckinghamshire, a resident named Paul Jacobs hurried around town warning neighbors to mount a resistance. Here's the story in the Times.

Jacobs argument is that criminals will use Google to scout out promising neighborhoods for burglaries. My guess would be that burglers already know promising neighborhoods. What they need, more than a one-time street view, is a understanding of people's life patterns. When do they leave for work or go on vacation? Do they lock their doors? These are questions that Google, for all of its power, cannot yet answer.

Interesting, also, to read the comments to Times story. Some note that the British submit to more security cameras than any people on earth, but draw the line at a Google truck. Of the many privacy invasions we face, this truck is low on my list. In fact, it bothers me a little that Google has traced only the main streets of Montclair, and has not paid any attention yet to mine.

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Insurers: the biggest data threat?
January 29, 2009Privacy

If a movement grows to wall off our data and block out the Numerati, good chance it come from fears about insurance-company abuse. And some of them may be well founded. I just came across this August story from the Washington Post detailing how insurers crunch our pharmaceutical data.

Of course, it's a very good idea. They can use it to study the effectiveness of medicines for certain groups of people. They can do all kinds of correlations. And it's all happening outside the reach of medical regulators. Even without gaining access to our medical records, many of which are marooned on paper in file cabinets, they can learn a lot about us and the medicines we take.

From the article:

Ingenix, a Minnesota-based health information services company that had $1.3 billion in sales last year -- and Wisconsin-based rival Milliman -- say the drug profiles are an accurate, less expensive alternative to seeking physician records, which can take months and hundreds of dollars to obtain. They note that consumers authorize the data release and that the services can save insurance companies millions of dollars and benefit consumers anxious for a decision.

The risk is that the companies will be found to use this data to deny us coverage, and to make more money. And the response then might be to lock down medical data--which we need, under the right conditions, for medical research.

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Spies in your cell phone
January 16, 2009Privacy

Cell phones are the ultimate surveillance devices. For many of us, they're with us every step. They report our movements, and with the advent of pervasive Wi-Fi, they'll do it with much greater accuracy than GPS or cell-tower triangulation. Here's a BW story from my colleague, Heather Green, about all the mobile data marketers are harvesting.

Privacy groups, including the Center for Digital Democracy, filed a 52-page complaint outlining the ways marketers collect info. It's the standard mix covered in my book and elsewhere: Location data, network behavior (who and how often you call), movie review you might look at on your phone, zip codes you frequent and the demographic details about them.

The key charge is that these marketers consult data companies such as Axciom, which have dossiers on each one of us. This implies that they're targeting us not as patterns of behavior, but as individuals with a name. If this turns out to be the case, there will likely be an uproar--and Congressional action against this practice. (Meanwhile, ad groups are already lobbying the Obama adminstration not to lower the boom against targeted ads...)

The mobile data companies I'm familiar with, including Sense Networks, go to great lengths to avoid collecting identity data. They know the social and poltical reaction it would spark. There's plenty of value to be mined simply from our movements and behavior as anonymous dots.

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Wal-mart pushes medical data
December 3, 2008Privacy

Perhaps the biggest frontier for the Numerati is medicine. If they can figure us out as patients, both by our genome and our behavior, they could revolutionize health care. Some of this is scary, of course, which is why people are reluctant to digitize medical data--and why many of us have to scrawl our on a clipboard while waiting for the doctor.

Wal-Mart is in a position to change the dynamic, and the company is busy doing it. Here's the BW story (that I should have linked to a 10 days ago).

 From the story:

The secret to gathering accurate records while preserving patient privacy is in the software. It automatically pulls information from the databases of participating insurers, pharmacies, and other parties, then stores it in password-protected digital files that only the employee can access. Wal-Mart didn't dream up this software system on its own. It's the product of a not-for-profit enterprise called Dossia, funded by major corporations including Intel (INTC), AT&T (T), and Pitney Bowes (PBI), as well as Wal-Mart itself. Each invested $1.5 million in the new company. The goal, says Dossia CEO Colin Evans, is simply "to make health care more efficient." Starting next year, Intel and the other original equity partners plan to implement the service and market it to other companies.

As I've written, today's economic troubles are going to give companies and governments a good reason to push for efficiencies. This will place more of our lives and work into the digital realm-- and produce all sorts of opportunities for the Numerati.

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