Collection of Information. Part 1

Today’s rush to collect private information online is about to create a mega-backlash

IBM has announced that it won’t advertise on any Web site that does not feature a privacy policy that clearly states how private information collected through the site might be used.

I loudly applaud IBM’s move, and think it’s one of the few companies that recognizes one very simple and important fact: many of those who use the Internet are becoming increasingly annoyed at efforts by companies to collect private information, and are increasingly distrustful of the corporate sector when it comes to their statements as to how they might use such information.

Indeed, I’ve come to believe that the current rush to collect private information on the Net will soon cause companies significant and long-lasting damage, as they face a consumer backlash of unprecedented proportions.

Think about what has happened here in the last few years. Many corporate marketing departments, awed by the unique one-on-one capabilities of the wired world, have come to view their Web sites as nothing more than a tool by which all kinds of useful marketing- and demographic-related information can be collected. There’s a feeding frenzy of methods and technologies that involve the collection of information about those who spend some time at a Web site.

The orgy of enthusiasm for information collection means that people are asked to provide all kinds of personal information when registering for particular sites. Some companies use cookies combined with Web tracking technology to build profiles of frequent users’ activities, then match these with registration information to build a very detailed profile of who’s doing what. Web information is also matched with other information, further increasing the attack on personal privacy.

Of course, marketers express innocence, stating that such activities are thoroughly benign. They regularly and loudly proclaim that their company doesn’t abuse the private information that it collects on the Net. They say their intentions are honourable, and that they need such information to build a profile that helps them justify their Web site. Cloak words such as “demographics,”profiling” and “traffic analysis” are used with abandon. They say that it’s all done with the intention of good, honest, basic marketing research. Besides, it’s the cost of visiting a Web site, they say.

Hogwash. Frankly, I don’t believe them and don’t trust their intentions. And indeed, like many Canadians, my Internet surfing activities are based on a foundation that the corporate world speaks the right words, but fails to follow through with honest actions.

A case in point: while writing our Mutual Funds and RRSP’s Online book last year, my wife, who often assists with research, visited a number of financial Web sites. Each site required registration, and in doing so asked for some rather personal information. Of course, each site also promised not to abuse that information, indicating that private information was, well, private.

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