Sunday, March 16, 2008

How concerned should we be about data collection?

In the movie Se7en, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman got a big clue on the identity of the killer by looking at library records for people who have borrowed both religious books and books on torture and serial murderers. Once your book-reading records are viewable, it's fairly easy for others to profile your interest. And once your interest is profiled, somebody may go one step further in profiling you as a person.

The New York Times posted this article last week:  To Aim Ads, Web Is Keeping Closer Eye on You

A new analysis of online consumer data shows that large Web companies are learning more about people than ever from what they search for and do on the Internet, gathering clues about the tastes and preferences of a typical user several hundred times a month.

Although the practice of internet data collection for targeted advertising is not new, the technology is getting more and more sophisticated to the point where the collected data may be traceable to the individual. With cookies being implemented in a lot of web sites, it's easy for internet advertising companies to track your browsing and searching habits and use this information to profile and target you later. Yes, there are ways to block your activities from being collected by internet advertising companies. The Adblock extension for Firefox browser is one option that I personally use. But in a bigger picture, blocking advertising is not the solution. Advertising is a very big reason why the internet is experiencing phenomenal growth in the last few years.

Handling of collected data is a serious concern. There is no mechanism implemented to ensure that only aggregate (and not personal) data is accessible to the company that collect them. In some countries like Indonesia, for example, there is no law whatsoever on internet data privacy. Above all, consumer awareness is key. Most people are not aware what information about them is being collected, let alone provide consent.

Yet another point to think about is the accuracy of data interpretation for the purpose of target marketing. I'll leave you with an old joke:

A young guy goes to a checkout counter in a local supermarket with one can of beer, one box of frozen dinner, one pack of Marlboro, one carton of milk, one bag of potato chips and an issue of Playboy. The cute girl behind the counter is ringing this stuff up and asks him, “Single, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Is it because I'm buying one of everything?”

“No. Because you’re ugly.”