Maybe it’s because I grew up speaking Russian, a language that has no word that exactly means “privacy.” Maybe it’s because I’m a libertarian at heart. But the latest waves of furor over browser cookies, location-based profiles, and iPhone App preferences puzzle me. I think part of the problem is that marketers accused of exposing our intimate secrets cannot explain to the political podium thumping public what they really need and what they actually do without. In truth, the marketer doesn’t want to know who YOU ARE, but, rather, he wants to know THINGS SOMEONE LIKE YOU MIGHT BUY. You, the individual, are a statistic. So is your gender, your social security number, your sexual orientation. It is a statistic of the aggregate, targeted population. Knowing “what you might like,” however, defines the customer and makes the modern-age ad man his living.
Knowing YOU and knowing ABOUT YOU are different things. Knowing YOU, knowing your identity, means knowing your address (email or otherwise), your credit score, and your religious or political affiliation. Never mind that many don’t mind advertising those to the world by putting their names on mailboxes, flashing platinum credit cards, affixing aluminum fish to their car trunks, and putting campaign signs on their lawns. Imagine, a two story suburban home in La Jolla with Christmas lights and a Lexus in the driveway. I think I can tell you a lot about the family that lives there, or at least be fairly sure of my guesswork. I can probably guess wich way they voted on a few California Propositions.
However, when a certain iPhone owner downloads Grindr and consistently checks into Castro bars on Friday night via their iPhone checkin app of choice, our statistical guess that he (gender) is probably gay (sexual orientation), above average economically (iPhone), and liberal (Castro, San Francisco) is somehow a violation of that phone owner’s privacy to be who he is. It’s a guess. That’s all. It may be wrong, but statistics tell us that we are more likely to be right with those conclusions. There are, I am sure, many straight, lower-income conservative females trolling the bars at the Castro… just not that many. “But I didn’t want anyone to know that about me” – sit at home, in the dark, don’t check in, and no one will know who you are. “But I don’t want that to affect my chances of landing a job or a mortgage” – discrimination, in those cases and many others, not only should be illegal — it already is illegal. You give up your privacy every time you step outside, much less engage in a social network.
It’s true that in order to put together a more accurate profile, we need information from a couple of sources. But just one, such as FourSquare, can give a lot of information about the person — the more data, the more accurate the conclusion. Note, we don’t need his Social Security number, address, date of birth or anything else. We can infer enough about the individual’s “type” by combining the attributes of his interactions with the world. The dimensions of time, location, social graph when observed for behavior patterns and signals can create a fingerprint that, for the purposes of the advertiser, is accurate enough. There is no way to stop this unless you stop interacting with the world around you. I don’t think a statistically significant percentage of the population would opt for a life of complete anonymity.
The advertiser wants the consumer to buy things. That’s it. They care about things he likes and how much money he has, they care about where he is and when he is there so they can offer a product he’s dying to get. Marketers want a reaction of someone looking at their ad or billboard to be “wow, just what I’ve been trying to find for the last couple of weeks.” For the advertiser this is, obviously, good. But, for the consumer, it is also GOOD. Advertisers spend less money needlessly targeting people who will never buy their product and consumer spend less time sifting through useless offers that they will never take.
If the consumer understands that by volunteering information about their preferences can be done without giving up their identity in exchange for a world that is more neatly tailored to their needs, perhaps voluntary information sharing can be seen in as a win-win for both the producer and the consumer, and the paranoia over big brother watching over your shoulder can be somewhat mitigated.