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Are we over-complicating the issue of Privacy?

This recent article on Forbes has sparked a fair bit of interest and controversy – “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did“. Essentially the piece is about how Target uses clever data mining techniques to discover (and sometimes predict) user behaviour and circumstance (as evidenced by the aforementioned case where they were able to predict a pregnancy…and recommend suitable baby products to the customer).

Seth Godin followed this news (not sure if there was a connection) with a great blog post about “the illusion of privacy” which made a great point…despite all the hullabaloo about privacy (or lack thereof) these days, perhaps what we’re most concerned about are unexpected surprises. This makes a lot of sense…after all, we only want so much “privacy” in our lives. Wikipedia defines the term privacy as “the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively.” We constantly reveal details about ourselves selectively in the hopes of rewards (think loyalty programs, credit cards, shopping cards), access to free services (think Facebook…or even Google) or a personalized experience. So what we’re really afraid of are people or companies that appear to know things you didn’t selectively choose to share…or perhaps didn’t realize they had access to.

The Forbes article mentions how Target chose to deal with this problem…they just got a wee bit sneakier. In their coupons and promotions, the company started including items that the target would definitely NOT be interested in, to create the illusion of randomness. This works…till you get caught out, of course.

So what’s the best approach to Privacy in our increasinly cluttered, inter-connected world? Most of us love the freebies and benefits offered by the barter of personal information for a service or a personalization. As we get more and more reliant on data in our quest for the truly semantic web, privacy as we thought of it a decade or two ago may just be misplaced nostalgia…or about as useful as an appendix.

Here’s what ought to work though…Simplicity and transparency.

Ask for permission and ask it clearly and simply enough that people understand what the implications of their choices will be. Easier said than done…but probably an easier undertaking than cleaning up the mess from a secretive attempt at creating ‘false’ privacy. Trust, once lost, is often lost forever.


Related Article (2010): The link between Facebook, Organ Donation and Boiling Frogs

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