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Digital Media Marketing and Privacy Protection in the Age of Big Data

There it was again: the expression of fear that we’re in danger of losing our online privacy. I hear gasps popping like bubbles around the room, which is filled with students learning the secrets of digital media marketing. Actually, I think to myself, we lost our online privacy a very long time ago.

Yesterday, Nick Bilton of the New York Times came to the same realization (he must not have kids or have attended the New Jersey State Police’s talk about children and internet security). His Bits Column, Disruptions: Privacy Fades in Facebook Era, demonstrates how easy – and fast – it is to uncover someone’s identity online.

I’m a bit of an early adopter, and loss of online privacy has me less freaked out than some of my peers. It doesn’t mean that I like it. It’s just that I realized long ago that the train had left the station in the middle of the night, when we were all sleeping.

I saw the future of privacy a little more than 15 years ago, when a public records vendor came to pitch its product to our business development team. The rep plugged my name into the database. Just my name, nothing else.

Up popped all of the places I’d previously lived, the names of all my current neighbors, their telephone numbers, and what they paid for their homes. But  the connections it made unnerved me: it linked me not just to all the members in my family, but also to a relative’s ex-husband and all of his family. And they’d divorced 10 years earlier.

Those details were unwittingly served up by all of us when we applied for mortgages and purchased homes. They’re a matter of public record, under law.

Today, our details become public for a variety of reasons. The new culture of sharing is one. More sophisticated technology is another. Every time you scan a bar code at the grocery store, visit a web site, read an article, or listen to a song, it’s possible for it to become part of your personal profile. The era of big data is here.

In some ways, I think this is great. Obviously it’s wonderful for marketers, who have a better chance of finding precisely the right audience for their product. But big data used responsibly can be great for consumers too. Personally, I want a filter. Show me ads that are relevant to my interests: the latest Apple toys and deals at Target, not Budweiser beer or hunting rifles.

As a digital media marketer, however, I need to walk that ever-thinning line between effective marketing and privacy breach. I want enough data to target my buyers with high-value content, but I also don’t want to violate their trust.

There are organizations, like EPIC (which is behind the FTC’s settlement with Facebook), that fight for safeguards. But marketers and technologists also must take a lead in developing policies and technologies that protect privacy. After all, we all suffer and benefit from these vast stores of “personal” intelligence.

Diane Thieke is now posting furiously on Facebook about her three kittens, in the hopes that Purina will send her some good bargains on ProPlan. Follow her at @thiekeds.

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