Why Is Privacy So Unsexy?

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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.


  1. Is it just me or is this all turning into a freaky gigantic reality show?
    I tend to go back and forth on privacy issues. On one hand, where is the harm? If consumers want to opt in for burger or yummy gyro specials as they walk or drive down the street, then so be it. If folks want to advertise their locations in order to meet new people, name drop, or gloat about a new hot spot then so be it again.
    Said glibly: people need to get a life. They need to live. Not simply tell others what they are living in real time.
    Said seriously: there are repercussions to advertising one’s life online, as you’ve pointed out using the “Please Rob Me” example.
    All up, I have no problem with what’s going on provided that there is a comprehensive opt-in / opt-out policy. Both cellphone manufacturers and mobile service providers *must* allow consumers full access to control what can and cannot be used or transmitted with respect to location based technology. I don’t care if it’s called Bluetooth, GPS, LBS, or whatever else is coming down the pipes. Control is paramount.
    Anyone that has seen HBO’s amazing series “The Wire” knows what kind of trap can be laid. Sure it’s easy to tap telephones, beepers, and mobile phones. It’s even fairly easy to map one’s friends and acquaintances in the non-digital world. Now we have viruses and tracking cookies, amongst other behavioural tracking methods. Of course law enforcement and intelligence agencies should have brilliant tools at their disposal within legal limits–signed and sealed by a judge. What I’m getting at is that people are just willingly giving up every bit about themselves, perhaps to future detriment.
    We’ve all heard about employers looking at employees’ or prospective employees’ Facebook pages. We’re all heard about someone getting robbed becaused they’ve advertised via Twitter being out and about. Now with Foursquare, users using their mobile devices can “check in” to places? I start losing the plot with that type of language. Anyone with a sense of history can start making parallels with that sort of language.
    In any event it’s an exciting time. I can visualize the most powerful, positive applications for all of these technologies. I just worry that said innovactions and technologies mightn’t be used in positive ways.

  2. Ah, the global village – ‘cos that’s what all this information is truly creating: at the same time as it’s expanding our ability to connect, it’s also giving all those connected people more visibility into each others’ lives, and shrinking the world.
    Just like living in a small village, in fact. That’s good and that’s bad, right? It means you know when someone can use a helping hand or an encouraging word. It means you can “bump into” someone and have a stimulating or just plain friendly conversation.
    On the other hand, it means your “village” knows everything you’re doing, as the Media Hacks chaffed each other about during the episode you referred to: CeeCee downloading Playboy, Julien buying lamps.
    Well, isn’t that life? Seriously, does anyone expect true privacy? I’m sure the generation growing up in this environment is just going to take for granted that there’s no such thing.
    It’s a digital Mayberry. Just be aware that, in addition to serendipitous connections, the neighbours are watching behind their lace curtains, and the village bully may be watching for an opportunity to take advantage of you – and govern yourself accordingly.

  3. I am usually very receptive towards trying a new technology. At the beginning I started using my Blackberry Twitter Client with the Geo-Location, which I later removed because a few people in my field convinced me it was not the best idea. I registered on Foursquare and I have been very resistant to use it. I am trying to look at the positive side of Geo-Tagging but this post actually brings another negative perspective that convinces me to use it less and less.
    Locally here in Puerto Rico we have a few people using Twitter very effectively for business but a large majority are using it as a broadcast channel. I can’t imagine more exposure while I am being tracked from location to location having vendors offer me for example a burger (which might be a bigger issue since I am vegetarian). Being an IT security professional these services bring me to many concerns than possible benefits.
    I also see the perspective on how these services actually get you closer to your audiences and public (especially for those how don’t mind disclosing their personal information and where they are located.
    The other point I enjoyed was how close we are to having web with mobile being merged. For some people it might be difficult trying to find the differences in both.
    I think I can relate very closely with Nicole’s comment on the small village effect. I am come from a Town in which information travels very quickly. Most of the issues I see every time I am in my hometown are related to the amount of information people have about each other. In most cases these brings more issues than benefits. Sadly humans always try to seek for differences instead of trying to benefit from the similarities and shared interests we all have. Most of the people that I know that have had to close a Facebook, Twitter or any other social network account have been involved in an issue of their personal information falling in the wrong hands. A few of them I have actually mentioned that their use on that social network platform might bring problems in the future and they have not listened.
    As a rule of thumb I try to keep everything posted on any site pretty transparent and I always try to see what benefits or disadvantages a post or update can actually bring me.
    Mitch, Great Post !

  4. The problem with the “small village” analogy is that in an actual village there really are people who keep an eye on your privacy for you. Yes, they may want to come in for tea at a time you have some work to do. But you work those things out. People might know (nearly) everything about the social world of the village—and they like both to gossip and to hangout at the same pub together. But they also know insider from outsider and don’t want someone intruding in your space while you’re away. So besides friendship, they have their own vested interest—and the ability—to keep an eye on your unlatched backdoor for you.

  5. I’m glad someone mentioned this. It escaped my original comment. I’ve been to towns in England, Ireland, and Europe where people knowing an “insider from outsider” couldn’t ring truer. There is the element that locals will watch your back if they know you. I’m not so sure the Internet has similar protections given its global and sometimes anonymous scope.
    Great comment!

  6. When I was working with the IETF on privacy in location-aware Internet protocols, we were always careful to make sure the user could control what amount of detail they released. E.g. one might fuzz location by adding randomness, or only giving it to the nearest kilometer. But it seems the social networks have sidestepped all that, as one can’t control other people. I might avoid using my home address online, but the furnace repair guy still needs it and might add it to his online routing page. And as Mitch points out, my friends might pin me down by posting their location to the nearest metre and saying I am with them.

  7. Thanks, Rob. I was thinking of the same villages you were when I replied. My wife and I also have an off-the-grid backcountry cabin. Never locked—under the maxim that if someone wants to steal something, it’s better that they walk right in than kick-in a door or window. So far, over ten years now, not a wisp of a problem (knock on wood)—and because of the reasons we both allude to.

  8. Disclaimer upfront: of course malicious intent (Rob Me or Stalk Me for that matter) is something very scary and dangerous. But…
    In my view, privacy as we (adults) know it is over. We have learned to close the curtains to the outside world as we go about our business in our own homes. We had two lifes: inside and outside. When on the outside, you were well aware of the implications your actions might have on your private life.
    As boundaries blur, and web technologies are getting more sophisticated and intricate, to people it is less clear what information patterns (trails) they are leaving out there for villains (or otherwise) to grab. Part of this is due to lack of web savyness, but at the other hand: I have a feeling people care less and less about their privacy.
    So I think education will be necessary (especially for the kids sharing all sorts online nowadays), some regulation will most probably come – but: will we be able to keep up or will we just give up?

  9. Interesting that your comment section gives me an opportunity to let you remember ID info or not.
    What Chris said… small towns are for the most part safe.
    And what other said re the need for real opt in.
    Plus privacy is pretty much over and has been for years. Back before the Web the teaching at the first online community – all text – The Well – was don’t put anything online that you’re not willing to see on the front page of the NYTimes. Which still works, but doesn’t take into account gps chips in my cell phone, rfd chips in my groceries… I don’t have opt in there if I want a cell phone or to shop for groceries.
    And I really don’t want to be told that I can buy cheap fries and a burger by my phone… sigh.
    I have no clue how to make the global village safe but working to eliminate poverty etc. can’t hurt.

  10. Our lives are growing ever more transparent. Part of this is directly related to the growth of social networks like Facebook, which coincides with the maturation of our online identities. The gap between what we do online and that which we do in the physical world is narrowing. Our digital identities are blurring into the real world. As a result, our personal infromation is becoming more accessible.
    Some welcome the free flow of information afforded through the Web and digital channels. Others fear that we are moving toward a society in which our transparency threatens our ability to have normal lives. There will always be people that occupy the extreme ends of the spectrum.
    What’s important to see is how large the population of people will be that occupy the space between the extreme views on privacy/transparency.

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