I was amused by Scott Canon’s article in yesterday’s edition of The Kansas City Star on his ever-growing dependency on all things Google and concerns about privacy issues. One notable quote:
“I’ve long understood that I have been engaged in a digital disrobing that reveals my digital self click by click, and byte by byte. I dropped almost all my veils, eagerly, in full view of the computer mind of a multinational corporation. It’s just that living in a Google world is so easy.”
Canon’s point is delivered tongue-in-cheek, but raises a broader and more serious concern, expressed on Sunday by Chicago-Kent School of Law Professor Lori Andrews in her New York Times essay, “Facebook is Using You.”
“Material mined online has been used against people battling for child custody or defending themselves in criminal cases. LexisNexis has a product called Accurint for Law Enforcement, which gives government agents information about what people do on social networks. The Internal Revenue Service searches Facebook and MySpace for evidence of tax evaders’ income and whereabouts, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been known to scrutinize photos and posts to confirm family relationships or weed out sham marriages. Employers sometimes decide whether to hire people based on their online profiles, with one study indicating that 70 percent of recruiters and human resource professionals in the United States have rejected candidates based on data found online. A company called Spokeo gathers online data for employers, the public and anyone else who wants it. The company even posts ads urging ‘HR Recruiters — Click Here Now!’ and asking women to submit their boyfriends’ e-mail addresses for an analysis of their online photos and activities to learn ‘Is He Cheating on You?’”
It’s not all bad, of course. As Jeffrey S. Trachtman points out in this response to Ms. Andrews’ piece, oftentimes, a site’s ability to deliver advertising offers that directly benefit both the site and the user, represents a win-win and is a positive outcome of data aggregation.
But the issue becomes more sinister when data are used to discriminate. More from Andrews:
“Now the map used in redlining is not a geographic map, but the map of your travels across the Web. The term Weblining describes the practice of denying people opportunities based on their digital selves. You might be refused health insurance based on a Google search you did about a medical condition. You might be shown a credit card with a lower credit limit, not because of your credit history, but because of your race, sex or ZIP code or the types of Web sites you visit.”
The key for me is the term “Weblining,” which could become a convenient excuse for greater government regulation of online sales and marketing practices. How many disgruntled consumers will it take before someone makes it his personal mission to ensure that no one is discriminated against due to his or her Web-surfing habits?
Where does efficient direct marketing end and Weblining begin? And is Weblining inherently a bad thing?
Stay tuned, sports fans. This is only the beginning.