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Culture

Personal information markets and anonymity

I was reminded by the Generation Bubble twitter feed (@GenBub_tweed; incidentally, mine is @marginalutility, trying to make it worthwhile/getting sucked in to it) of this WSJ article from July, which made a bit of stink at the time but which I was too dismayed and apathetic to address then. It's a story about how companies surreptitiously archive our online behavior, use it to profile us, and then sell it along to marketers looking to target pitches. That's not really news, although most of us probably unconsciously block out that information in order to continue to use the internet comfortably. One of these companies is Lotame:

Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person's name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers. [A person's tastes] can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of "50 First Dates").

"We can segment it all the way down to one person," says Eric Porres, Lotame's chief marketing officer.

I guess at that point, withholding your name doesn't really matter; your name and your profile are the same for all intents and purposes. The ad targeted for you reaches you and only you.

"It is a sea change in the way the industry works," says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. "Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages."

Isn't the pretense of anonymity always already violated? When everything about you is shared but your specific name, is your privacy protected in any meaningful way, especially when that aggregate of preferences can be used to target you? There may be no operative distinction between real name and user ID that holds up. This is part of what makes the recent news that Facebook apps leak user IDs so troubling and also so besides the point. That the entity being sold online on personal information markets is not your actual name but a string of digits is somewhat irrelevant, particularly since your name is the least important piece of information about you to marketers.

I feel like I am struggling to get at what I mean, so I apologize for the redundancy: But if all the contextual information we generate can allow us to be targeted quite specifically, what difference does our name not being attached make? We can still effectively be singled out for our deeds and preferences if need be.

"Profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months," the July article reports. We can be traded precisely because we have been anonymized, abstracted, because our name doesn't mitigate the impact of the data. Our name is the one thing about us that means nothing.

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