Monday, February 11, 2013

"Don't Get Scroogled by Gmail" - Free Services or Enhanced Privacy?

Solving the emotive issue of an individual’s privacy online is a daunting task, when consumers want free services, and the underlying economics of making services free  is driven by ad revenue.  Companies pay for advertisements only if they derive measurable return from their marketing spend – product sales based on ad clicks and in turn pay ad providers on the number of consumer clicks on displayed ads. To make this system effective, advertisements have to be kept relevant to the audience. Key to this success is the identification of target segments based on demographics or context; such as a baby diaper advertisement on sites or search queries related to mother care.

Search engines and social networks do not have content of their own, and therefore have to display ads by interpreting the context of a user’s action such as a search query or post. This interpretation is deeply enhanced by the knowledge of a user’s search histories or messages which provide a view into the user’s top of the mind need. Using such insights, search engines increases their click through rate by serving relevant advertisements on web pages or on other services the person visits or uses.

Many netizens do not read the privacy policies of online sites before they click to accept them, as they are lengthy and the legalese too cumbersome to comprehend.  Even if one did manage to make sense of the policy, one would find that all alternative service providers offered a similar variant. To not sign up is not an option unless a user wishes to live with a severely curtailed version of the Internet. Even in paid services without ads, a user may not be absolved of such risks because legal departments take precautions against every single eventuality, which includes the right to use data.

Microsoft campaign against Google called "Don't Get Scroogled by Gmail" is designed to tap into a consumer's growing fear that their privacy is being compromised on the Internet. The campaign was based on a GfK Roper poll commissioned by Microsoft that found that 70 percent of people didn't know services scanned personal email for ad targeting, with 88 percent disapproving of the practice.

While most of these emails are scanned by automated agents to bring in a level of robotic abstraction from the human persona, it does not guarantee absolute privacy. Contextually, if it can be determined that a user is searching for a mortgage, then the same logic would  tell if a user is in a relationship or even reveal more intimate associations. After all, a contextual search on a giant database only requires clever algorithms. There is no malicious intent in such searches as big firms have no interest in the person apart from enhancing their ad revenue, but the real danger is from potentially malicious insiders or hackers who gain the ability to use such contextual searches for their own end. Such tools are currently in use by law enforcement to combat crime and terror.

Cybercitizens and their associations collectively apply pressure on websites to reign in their tendency to misuse privacy related data (user profiles, search histories, messages or posts). Such actions have effectively maintained a check on privacy misuse, and ensured large firms modified their systems under their pressure. This is because reputed firms can be trusted to not misuse individual privacy or rights in ways that will hurt the financial or emotional well being of their consumers, as this would severely undermine their business viability. Today, privacy gaffe’s made during the implementation of a technologically smart idea by an engineer with no clue of its privacy implications are on the decline, as large firms have instituted privacy reviews and awareness programs.

However, there is no slowdown on the automated or robotic use of big data analytics to mine a user’s needs, behavior and actions and translate them into sales and new products. Privacy is also a not so important topic among the younger generation. In the future, we should expect a careful balance between privacy, its economics and legal deterrent to data abuse. This is an imperative to keep the Internet free, for it to grow and to foster continuous innovation in online technology, products and services.

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