Making Privacy Transparency Work For You

So you're looking at me?  Tell me more.

So you’re looking at me? Tell me more.

It seems like privacy issues have been front of mind way too much lately.  Today will be no different.  But let’s look at it a little differently.  Do user’s appreciate data transparency or is it a case of information overload.  This comes up with the emergence of new tracking technologies that bypass all of the controls we have learned to love.  My thanks to Adam Tanner, who wrote about this issue a few months ago on Forbes.com.

 

This new tracking technology relies on fingerprinting of your system.  When you access a website, either from your desktop or mobile device, there is a large amount of information that is sent within the request.  Using that information, as well as other information that can be queried from your system, the site operator can ‘fingerprint’ you, or at least the computing device you are using.

 

The Basics of Website Access

 

Before we get into what fingerprinting can be in all of its glory, let’s just look at some basics.  When your device accesses a service (or site) it, in the case of a website access, sends an http request.  Contained within that http request is some basic information.  This includes where you are accessing the site from, IP address, and what web browser you are using.  These are required bits of data.  The IP address can locate you with some accuracy.  If you have never gone to whatismyipaddress.com, head on over there now and see where you are.

 

Fingerprinting Goes Way Further

 

Fingerprinting looks at the characteristics of your computing device with a high degree of precision.  What plugins do you have installed, the size of your screen, time zone, and other features of your machine.  As I was reading Adam’s article my first reaction was that all I need to do is change the mix.  He references an EFF study which found that it is easy to track those changes.  All of this information is transmitted, even if you have other tracking technologies disabled.

 

You are Unique, Just Like Everyone Else

 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) does an incredibly good job of monitoring all the new developments out there from the consumer’s perspective.  Their Pantopticlick service can show you just how unique you are.  While writing this article, I found out I was unique amongst almost 3 million people who had access the service.  For those who miss the historic tip of the hat, the name derives from a conceptual design of the Panopticon by Jeremy Bentham which would allow watchers to observe without being observed themselves.

 

Transparency Is The Key, I Think

 

Truth be told, I am a bit creeped out by the information I am transmitting in every service request I make now that I am more aware of it.  I think most users don’t care, though.  As long as you give good value they will accept it.  However, transparency will prevent your next public relations crisis, which may occur if you use this type of technology without some design forethought.

 

Companies like AdStack are being open about their services based on this technology.  Their CEO, Evan Reiser, gets major points in my book because he references the cool-creepy balance.  What really resonates is his feeling that if you make content more relevant it becomes less spam-ey and more like content.  Delivered to the user when they need it, it is serendipitous.

 

The problem here is that this technology is not regulated.  You are not directly giving information to the service provider.  It is the same as me walking into the local Target and being profiled based on my Teva sandals, ironic t-shirt and North Face shorts.  That being said, if you are considering this type of information collection, you should be worried about a few things:

    • Governmental regulation.  While Reiser says there is no legal case against it, I think the more this information is used, the more the cry will go up for it to be regulated.  The problem with fingerprinting technology can be disadvantaging people based on protected class information.  If my fingerprinting provides a benefit to a specific class of people, be prepared to defend your practices.
    • Public outcry.  Reiser also points out another of my tenets – don’t be the tip of the spear.  You do not want to be the company on the front page of cnn.com being singled out for something that your users do not like.

Be transparent when you serve up content that is personalized using any type of information about the user, whether you got it from them directly, or indirectly.

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