Someone smart said in the summer of 2011, “If what you are getting online is for free, you are not the customer, you are the product.” In our current hyperlinked and Facebook world the nature of online services is changing.
For many consumers in the US, it doesn’t matter a whole lot that advertising on Google is now more tailored to your taste (as defined by your searches), your communications (as defined by your emails), by your activities (as defined by your socializing on Google+), and by your video viewing habits (as defined by your YouTube searches). But legally companies are required by law to get your permission, and personal information (on Google or Facebook for example) by something called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But how is a ‘conversation’ defined? This ECPA law does not apply to data transferred between my computer and Amazon’s computer while I’m shopping for shoes. Tracking cookies and other technologies that Amazon has placed on my computer can help identify me to their third-party partners. For Amazon to get into trouble under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the minimum threshold for damages is $5,000. Other laws come into play; I learned recently that my video renting habits is protected by another piece of legislation. (I’m personally glad that my Blockbuster records from 2001 are safe, as many of those DVD’s I rented back then were completely forgettable.)
You need to take responsibility for what you do online. So here are three things you can do today that won’t take a lot of time or effort to increase your online privacy:
1. Modify your search behavior. You can use private browsing mode in IE, Firefox and Chrome; alternatively you can use an alternative search engine like Duck Duck Go (take a look at an introduction here). Another option is to use plugins in Firefox or Chrome like Disconnect or Ghostery.
2. Go to http://www.google.com/history and pause ‘Web History’. You can view what they know about you already, which can be a bit strange or revelatory depending on how much you remember of what you’ve done online, and then take action to delete it if you want to.
3. Take it offline. If you do not want Amazon to know you are shopping for something embarrassing, then get offline and head to your nearest CVS, pay cash and don’t use the CVS card. There was a recent story about how Target figured out a teenager was pregnant before her father knew.
Marketing and customer profiling and segmentation are great tools, and this is spoken as a marketing person. You just need to be careful out there.