Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 4, 201011:48 AM

Why Is Privacy So Unsexy?

Imagine this scenario: you are walking along one of your favourite streets and you suddenly receive a text message on your mobile phone. It notifies you that your favourite fast-food burger chain has a joint just up the block, and if you come on in, they are willing to throw in a medium-size fries and bottomless jolts of free cola with the purchase of a hamburger.

People seem to get all excited about the GPS capabilities of the mobile device. We were told that the ability for your mobile phone to know exactly where you are would become a bastion for marketers to deliver relevant and targeted information to you based on your specific location. Like the fast food example above, to some this is the exact type of marketing they're looking for: something relevant and targeted. For others, this is their worst nightmare: more inane messaging through yet another channel.

Years ago, there were hints and promises of technologies that would know where you were and if/when you had opted in, they would send you messages, offers or opportunities, based on your location, the time of day and a few other targeted variables. It was pushed even further with something called LBS (short for Location Based Services). Imagine signing up for text messages from your favourite music artist so you can be notified when they are coming to your town and how you can buy tickets. On top of that, on the day of the event, the actual artist is sending out highly personal messages about their day in your city - where they are eating, what they're up to after the show, and even which songs they practised during sound check. This type of content not only brings you closer to the artist, but it feels highly personal.

In each instance, these types of technologies and marketing platforms did come to fruition, but they're happening in platforms that are both mobile and Web-based - they are platform agnostic and the revenue model is not as clear as paying for every text message.

Think about Twitter (where individuals follow other individual's 140-character text-based thoughts/messages): while you don't have to specifically sign up via text messaging, you can get your tweets in a common Web browser, through a mobile browser, iPhone/BlackBerry/Android apps or even by subscribing to them via SMS. What's curious about the success of Twitter is the propensity of its users to choose the mobile platform over the Web platform.

For years, tech enthusiasts and marketing pundits have wondered when the mobile and Web platforms would converge, and the truth of the matter is it may have already happened.

With all of that comes some pretty scary stuff, too. We're putting a ton of private information in online social networks, and it's not hard to connect the dots between what we're posting on Facebook, what we're tweeting about on Twitter and where we're presently located via Foursquare. With the Silicon Valley and Twitteratti crowd, Foursquare seems to be the new New Media darling. Foursquare users use their mobile device to "check in" when they're at any location and to leave notes, tips or suggestions. Upon checking in and doing repetitions of multiple activities, users are awarded points, badges and can even be named virtual "mayor" of specific locations. It's highly addictive and picking up tremendous steam in the online world.

Marketers and businesses are also reaping the rewards of Foursquare's amazing growth by offering very special and limited promotions to people who are checking into their specific location or somewhere nearby.

And now for the scariest part: Please Rob Me was launched a short while ago (it was also discussed on this episode of Media Hacks: SPOS #191 - Media Hacks #25). Through a simple and free online search, this website was able to identify individuals who had "checked in" to a location (meaning that they were no longer at home) while cross-referencing that information with related "friends" who have "checked in" to that individual's home in the past: essentially being able to list the name and address of someone who is not home. The site received so much attention in the past month that it recently said it is looking to turn over the website to a "professional foundation, agency or company that focuses on raising awareness, helping people understand and provide answers to online privacy related issues."

So, while you may be concerned about getting an unwanted text message about free french fries, you may want to first consider how much personal content you're actually publishing online as we move toward more location-aware environments and online social networks, and as more of these platforms publish their content for all to see.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:
Montreal Gazette - Convergence of powerful online platforms can take much of your privacy off-line.
Vancouver Sun - Revealing your location online not always wise.

By Mitch Joel