Every time we use a computer or mobile phone we are laying down footprints about our behaviour. These footprints can be pulled together to create a frighteningly accurate digital profile.
In August AOL was chastised for releasing the data from 650,000 users’ searches onto a public web site for research purposes. This turned into a public relations nightmare when the 20 million keyword searches were downloaded thousands of times.
AOL user 4417749 (the com-pany had given each searcher a unique number in a poorly executed attempt to hide their identities) was actually 62-year-old American widow Thelma Arnold. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder,” she told New York Times’ journalists who had worked out her identity from her searches alone.
The privacy debate at the core of this situation is almost impossible to get to the bottom of. Companies have collected information about their customers and potential customers for as long as commerce has been around. It is foolish to think that we should, or even could try to control how much data companies’ collect about their customers.
However, there was a time when it was easy to recognise when our personal information was being collected. We would fill in registration forms when applying for credit cards or magazine subscriptions. But with the internet explosion, data collection has become far more subversive. We no longer know when our actions are being recorded, or who, or what, is making the recording.
One of the most fundamental reasons for recording our actions is advertising. It is how Google, and an increasing number of online companies, earn their cash. Targeted advertising equals big money as companies continue to chase the perfect lead.
But it is important to discuss who has ownership of that data. Is it the organisation that collected the data, the firms that pay to access it, or is it the government?
The US government, at least, would claim the latter. Earlier this year, it t ried to force Google into providing details of search terms for an investigation into child pornography. A court rejected the demands, but did rule that the company had to provide the government with 50,000 web addresses, as well as the entire contents of a user’s gmail account.
More recently, a huge debate has emerged about whether the Bush administration should be allowed to wire tap communications from those with links to suspected terrorists without a warrant. It was something the government was doing, but which has now been ruled ‘unconstitutional’ by a federal court. The issue is only going to get bigger. A recent deal signed between Pipex, Airspan Networks and Intel has resulted in Milton Keynes becoming the first UK city to receive city-wide wireless broadband. As a result, while the city could potentially be online all of the time, a corresponding explosion in the amount of data being collected is a consequence.
Business has a central role to play in this debate. It is the biggest user of and creator of consumers’ behavioural information. You would do well to familiarise yourself with the debate and, more importantly, data protection laws. I have a hunch that the US government won’t be the only one hauled into court over the use of private data.
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