Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Privacy vs. Publicity

Mobile devices present unique opportunities in marketing because they identify the owner's geospatial position at all times. Location-based Services (LBS) is the buzz word these days as marketers are scrambling to find was to reach people with relevant advertising based upon where a person's mobile device is at any moment in time. The reasoning is that mobile devices have become so ingrained into people's lives that the devices are virtually inseparable from the owner. Ergo, if you know where the device is, you know where the owner is.

There is a debate going on in the wired world regarding online privacy whose outcome may have an impact upon location-based marketing in the wireless world. Earlier in July, a federal judge in Seattle upheld an earlier ruling that an IP address is not personally identifiable information. Says US District Court Judge Richard Jones, "In order for 'personally identifiable information' to be personally identifiable, it must identify a person. [um...yeah...] But an IP address identifies a computer."

Now his ruling was in a different context - in which the defendant in the class-action lawsuit is none other than everyone's favorite Big Brother. Apparently back in 2006 there was a software update that automatically installed anti-piracy software. The pain point is that the company violated its own end user agreement by harvesting IP addresses in the process.

But on the other side of the pond, the European Union in its arcane wisdom ruled quite the opposite. In their opinion, an IP address is personally identifiable information. In the same light, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that ISPs cannot disclose a subscriber's IP address to the police without a grand jury subpoena.Though this ruling was in the context of a criminal matter but it does set the legal precedence to be extended to the seamy (Under)world of Marketing.

If people are uptight about somehow being traced by an IP address on the wired Internet to the degree of possible legislative intervention, then it stands to reason that these same people's uptightness will extend to the wireless world - specifically with impact to location-based services. Are legislative restrictions on mobile marketing opportunities using LBS looming as a dark cloud in the horizon? True there are smartphones that have settings enabling one to disable the location-broadcasting capability of their devices. But there are enough people who don't want to take control of their own lives and prefer instead to dictate the lives of everyone else around them. Ya just never know what could happen.

So now I'm just scratching my head. How can a person be concerned about his whereabouts being tracked from his computer's IP address when at the same time, he's telling the whole world where he is and what he's doing at every moment of the day?!

Here's a fer instance: Twitter. It is so easy for me to know in real time exactly what city people are in, what restaurant they are dining in, what conference they are attending, and what room they are currently in within their own home. How do I know? 'Cause they are tweeting about it and telling the whole world, that's how.

And Facebookers? Heck! Not only do they tell the world where they are at and what they are doing, but they post pictures of themselves doing it too!

My point is this: technology is not the villain. Facebook and MySpace are not the villains either. It really doesn't matter what information we enter into our social site profiles or whether the information is accessible via API. We already broadcast so much about ourselves by what we say with our own fingers - on Twitter, in our blogs, and on our Facebook/MySpace/Bebo/etc. pages.

Companies like Zeta Interactive and Unbound Technologies build profiles of people based on publicly available information and make that intelligence available to marketers to build targeted, timely, and relevant messaging. So my advice is, if you're worried about what a marketer might know about you, then at the very least make sure you are selective about what you say about yourself on your social page and in your tweets.

And to the lady sitting three rows back from me on the bus: if you don't want me to know everything about what's going on in your life, your brothers's life, your pastor's wife's life, and your dog's life, then either lower your voice or hang up your cellphone and shut up!

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