Data and Privacy: Who Owns “You?”

January 18, 2011 at 7:18 pm 3 comments

Part 1 in an ongoing series on data privacy.

By Mary Ludloff

There’s a great report on the power and possibilities of Big Data that was just released by NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology, and the Arts in the U.K. I could give you a long and involved explanation of how this all came to be, but David Rowan from does a much better job synthesizing the event itself and the report results so read his article instead!

Now, if you’re interested in Big Data, this is a must read. And even if you’re not, you really should at least read the section on our electronic soul because it is all about data privacy and they tell it much better than I ever could.

Think about it. Every day, with our various personal devices, we leave trail crumbs of data across the Internet. That data is used for a myriad of purposes and I could go into a long, detailed discussion about what it is used for, but in its simplest form it’s really used by people like me (yes, marketers) to figure out how to influence you to buy a product or a service. Some might say that this is too simplistic a view, but I will get into the “for the greater good” discussion in another post.

So I ask you: who owns the digital you?

All those sites that you joined, buy or sell things on, or use to “connect with,” might say that in return for the services or products they provide, they own the data that you leave (those trail crumbs) on their site. And they have a point.

But they don’t own you: you do. Here’s the truth: when it comes to your privacy, the Internet should be viewed as the Wild West. Companies are expected to self-regulate and some are much better at it than others. So, don’t wait for some Internet Bill of Rights to magically fix everything—the debate about data, privacy, and the Internet will go on and right now, there is no magic pill. That’s why you need a privacy policy.

Huh? Yes, companies do have privacy policies (and you should read them if you’re a member of the site, or registering for something, or buying something, etc.) but you need to decide upfront what you’re willing to share and what you’re not. For example, in my last post I talked about Facebook users sharing their school affiliations or pet names. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as you never use that information for your password hints or worse, your password.

Your privacy policy does not need to be complicated. Mine is very simple. Every time I do something that will give someone else “insight” into my behavior, thoughts, beliefs, etc., I ask myself a simple question: if anyone could find out about what I “shared” would I care? If the answer is no, I share. If the answer is yes, I don’t.

I call this my personal opt-in policy.  You haven’t seen this policy? That’s because it does not really exist except in some of the forms you fill out to get “something of value” (like that White Paper or webinar playback, etc).  It’s that box you check that does/does not allow some site to sell or share your “information.” Once you have decided what your personal opt-in is, it’s pretty easy (although it may take a bit of time if you haven’t done it yet) to put your privacy policy in action. This is what I did (really, and I am going to confess right now that before working at PatternBuilders, I was pretty lax about monitoring how my data was being used, but after many discussions about data and privacy and what it means to us professionally and personally, I needed to practice what I preached):

  • Read ALL the websites that I visit on a regular basis, privacy policies. (Not fun, but for a complicated professional networking site, LinkedIn’s privacy policy is a thing of beauty. It’s straightforward and specific about what is done with your data, who uses it, and who sees it.)
  • Determined whether I was okay with their opt-in and opt-out policies and if not, changed them or ended my relationship with the site.
  • For every “new” website relationship I was about to enter into, I did the same.

Once the grunt work is done, you can then go into monitoring mode. This is what I do every couple of weeks:

  • Google and Bing myself to see what information is out there about me and whether it has changed.
  • Visit sites like My ID Score and Spokeo (see my previous post) to ensure that the data I want private remains private.

Sounds like a bit of work? Well, it is and it isn’t. After all, this is your electronic soul that we’re talking about. Who better to determine how it’s used and for what purpose, than yourself!

Entry filed under: Data. Tags: , , , .

The New New Thing Big Data, Analytics, and Privacy: Do No Harm

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