Even the Garbage is Tracking You – More Privacy Challenges

Privacy was easy with Quill Pens, wasn't it?

Privacy was easy with Quill Pens, wasn’t it?

How many more examples of innovation that misses the privacy mark do we need?  Yesterday I read this article about garbage cans tracking users to target advertising.  I wish I could have been in the room when they were first proposing this.  Not to be the one to stand up and say no.  I want to know if anyone thought this was a bad idea.  My guess?  Not a single one stood up and asked, “hey, are users really going to accept this now?”

It is inevitable that what we accept will change over time.  It feels to me like every new privacy intrusion gets reacted to with “times are changing, just get over it.”  A statement from the CEO of the London startup Renew says, “it is very much like a website.”  Either we fight for reasonable controls over the collection and use of our information that is easy and meaningful, or we just accept this and dismantle the whole privacy protection thing wholesale.

More information about the trial can be found in a Quartz blog post.  I like the ending quote on Quartz the best:

“The chances are, if we don’t see you on the first, second, or third day, we’ll eventually capture you,” he said. “We just need you to have it on once.”

Times Are Changing, But Not Today

Yes, times are changing.  Having an idea of what you will be able to do in 5 or ten years is a good thing to do.  I call it future casting.  You need to be in the real world today.  Who are your consumers, your users and who will be reacting to what you do.  They are the canvas on which your technology will be painted.  The beauty, or lack thereof, of it will be evaluated by them, not by the you, the painter.

Stop this thinking that you know better than the average consumer.  You don’t.  You may be smarter than the average consumer, but unless you really evaluate your actions against the average consumer, your preconceptions will be your demise.

How Do Things Like This Happen – Why Aren’t We Learning?

Technologists are always enamored with the coolness of their new thing.  Imagine being in your office when one of your team runs in and says, “I got something new.”  Of course you stop what you are doing and pay attention.  When they tell you that they can sell a service to coffee shops that will divert 15% of their competitor’s foot traffic.  Dollar signs are dancing in front of your head.

In project meetings you then hear about this new display technology that would display a targeted advert to users informing them of specials at a local shop based on information about the user.  You think I heard about that on that movie with the crazy actor guy.  Then you start to hear about the technology and you are amazed at what it can do.

A prototype is built.  You walk by it and you see an advert based on your phone.  Your colleague walks by and sees a different advert.  You think that this is really, really cool.  That the technology works and businesses will love this.  What you neglected was the consumer value of the system.  Yet again.  For you, the value was the coolness.

You are not an average consumer.  Please stop thinking you are.  You need to find real consumers.  You need to ask questions.

I have seen a few reactions to this story and they are all of the same variety.  “Damn, that’s creepy.”  “Oh my god, what info are they harvesting from my phone.”

Renew’s CEO says this was just a trial.  That all the concerns are mere extrapolations.  That all they were doing was targeting based on the phone manufacturer.  The problem is that the extrapolations are all reasonable.  If I know your MAC address (which I can get), I can track you from one store to the other.  One garbage can can see me leaving a sporting goods store.  The next garbage can down the street can then offer me up an advert for their competitor.  Of course they can do this.  Websites do this.

Renew’s own informational releases even talk about this extrapolation.  What the CEO does say is incredibly offensive to me, “[a]s long as we don’t add a name and home address, it’s legal.”  Legal and accepted are two different things.  Legal is never enough, unless your aim is to change perceptions and mores.

Value-Exchange Folks, Value-Exchange

Where is the value to me?  What do I get out of this?  I also don’t have any control over the data collection.  In my three-legged stool, I am left with only one leg.  Renew’s system just feels like an information grab.

Some will argue that you are on a public street, therefore any semblance of privacy you think you have is forfeited.  Perhaps.  The CEO hit on an interesting thought when he said, “London is the most heavily surveilled city in the world.”  The interesting bit is not that, but that in such a surveilled city, where people are used to being watched, there is an outcry.  If the most surveilled people in the world find this offensive, how are others going to react?

Ask The Right Questions!!

You need to have people schooled in privacy participating in projects where ANY user data is collected.  You also need people that will ask the right questions.  Technologists have shown an inability to ask the right questions.

As soon as you know user data is being collected (even transiently) you need to put your team together to examine what you are doing.  An ounce of prevention will be much easier than the pound of cure associated with crisis management.

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One Response to Even the Garbage is Tracking You – More Privacy Challenges

  1. Kerry Childe says:

    As I explained to a group I gave a presentation to last month, the fact that it’s “just” a MAC address and not your actual name DOES NOT fix the problem. No one uses anyone else’s cell phone, really, and for damn sure no one *walks around* with anyone else’s cell phone — a cell phone MAC address DOES, for all intents and purposes, identify a person — otherwise it wouldn’t be valuable information for marketers, now would it?!

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