Average Folks and Retailer Tracking

Yesterday evening, I found myself at the Mansion on O Street, whose eccentric interior filled with hidden doors, secret passages, and bizarrely themed rooms, seemed as good as any place to hold a privacy-related reception. The event marked the beta launch of my organization’s mobile location tracking opt-out.  Mobile location tracking, which is being implemented across the country by major retailers, fast food companies, malls, and the odd airport, first came to the public’s attention last year when Nordstrom informed its customers that it was tracking their phones in order to learn more about their shopping habits.

Today, the Federal Trade Commission hosted a morning workshop to discuss the issue, featuring representatives from analytics companies, consumer education firms, and privacy advocates. The workshop presented some of the same predictable arguments about lack of consumer awareness and ever-present worries about stifling innovation, but I think a contemporaneous conversation I had with a friend better highlights some of the privacy challenges mobile analytics presents.  Names removed to predict privacy, of course!

Because Everyone Needs Facebook

Facebook has rolled out several proposed updates to its privacy policy that ultimately gives Facebook even more control over its users information.  Coming on the heels of $20 million settlement by Facebook for using user’s information for inclusion in advertisements and “sponsored stories,” Facebook has responded by requiring users to give it permission to do just that:

You give us permission to your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us.

A prior clause that suggested any permission was “subject to the limits you place” has been removed.

This is why people don’t trust Facebook. The comments sections to these proposed changes are full of thousands of people demanding that Facebook leave their personal information alone, without any awareness that that ship has sailed.  I don’t begrudge Facebook’s efforts to find unique and data-centric methods to make money, but as someone who is already reluctant to share too much about myself on Facebook, I can’t be certain that these policies changes aren’t going to lead to Facebook having me “recommend” things to my friends I have no association with.

But no one is going to “quit” Facebook over these changes.  No one ever quits Facebook.  As a communications and connectivity platform, it is simply invaluable to users.  These changes will likely only augment Facebook’s ability to be deliver users content, but as someone who’s been with Facebook since early on, Facebook sure has transformed from this safe lil’club into a walled Wild West where everyone’s got their eye on everyone.


Digital Market Manipulation Podcast


The other week, Rebecca Rosen wrote up a fantastic overview of Professor Ryan Calo’s new paper on “Digital Market Manipulation” in The Atlantic.  “What Does It Really Matter If Companies Are Tracking Us Online?” she provocatively asked in her headline.

Conveniently, I was scheduled to speak with Professor Calo about his essay Consumer Subject Review Boards — A Thought Experiment, which looks at how institutional review boards (IRBs) were put in place to ensure ethical human testing standards and suggests a similar framework could be brought to bear on consumer data projects.

I was able to ask him about the concept of digital market manipulation, which seems to move beyond mere “privacy” concerns into questions of fundamental fairness and equality.

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