The Too Visible Man: The Connection of Offline and Online Personas

We occasionally discuss privacy on this blog.  I have previously written that balancing the competing values — a revenue model to support the Internet versus individual privacy interests — is not easy.

Until recent history, our lives have never been documented and preserved moment to moment. Communications fade away shortly after communications, images stay in personal albums, personal spending decisions stay personal, and most importantly any recordings of our words, pictures, and actions stay local and are not broadcast as if we’re celebrities stalked by paparazzi.  We largely were in control both in what we made public and how far we allowed to be disseminated.

The next two posts are reporting on where we are in privacy.  They demonstrate that the question of balancing of values is pressing:  we are in deep water already, the waves are getting rough, and there are no lifeguards on duty.  It’s time to get ahead of the tide and figure out where we stand on these issues before we read about them in the news.

My first report is on the merging of enormous online repositories of behavior (think Facebook in this example) with offline databases of purchasing and other behavior. The FT reports on the spawn of Facebook and a data company called Datalogix:

Datalogix has purchasing data from about 70m American households largely drawn from loyalty cards and programmes at more than 1,000 retailers, including grocers and drug stores. By matching email addresses or other identifying information associated with those cards against emails or information used to establish Facebook accounts, Datalogix can track whether people bought a product in a store after seeing an ad on Facebook.

The offline database also includes information such as car make, home value, and estimated net worth.  The Facebook online database includes things like political thoughts, personal happenings, friends, photos, life events, etc.  Linking with a search engine like Google would link this information to questions we are thinking about, business ideas we might be researching, political items we might be exploring, etc.

There are many questions that flow with this.  Was it proper to combine the various sources of offline data into one database?  What issues and comfort level do we have with going a step farther — that is bolting together our intimate sharing that we have consented to communicate to certain people on Facebook being combined with a bunch of accumulated offline data that we have forgotten about?  Is this all stored in a database and how do we know it is not?  Do we get to verify or know what is in that database?

There is a national conversation that needs to happen that is not happening.

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