Thursday, March 20, 2008

Privacy, not just a worry for people wearing tinfoil beanies

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

From Whitehall losing CDs containing the child benefit records of 25 million citizens, to customer databases being hacked, every week seems to bring another story of incompetence or criminality in the data world.

Everywhere we go, we leave a data cloud behind us. From shopping habits to tube journeys, little bits of information track our behaviour, whilst an estimated 4.2 million cameras watch our indiscretions.

When we move online, we bask in the assumed privacy it brings us. People act out fantasies, masquerading as members of the opposite sex. Vast amounts of porn are watched, and otherwise responsible people download illegal copies of Hollywood movies.

But we also value our privacy for legitimate purposes. We talk to our friends online, and prefer of these conversations to remain private. We give our credit card details to websites when we buy stuff. And as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web said this week in an interview with the BBC,

"I want to know if I look up a whole lot of books about some form of cancer that that's not going to get to my insurance company and I'm going to find my insurance premium is going to go up by 5%”.

Because once we get online, the data cloud gets denser. Every search we make, web page we view, someone is tracking our interest. When in 2006, AOL released the search behaviour of 650,000 users, it caused an outcry. Few had realised just how much information was routinely kept by online companies – every search made by these users was suddenly revealed, and it made fascinating reading (if you’re a bit nosy and had time on your hands).

Berners-Lee was responding to a question posed about Phorm – the behavioural targeting company that’s just signed a deal with Virgin, Talk Talk and BT.

Behavioural Targeting (confusingly also know as BT) is the practice of gathering data about what people do online, in order to make decisions about what sort of content then to display to them.

So a media owner tracks visitors to their site, and this enables them to serve ads for gardening products to people who have visited the gardening section of the site, even when those people are subsequently looking at the finance channel.

Until now though, BT has been limited to tracking only behaviour on websites that had the tracking code installed – and with competing systems that gives each quite limited coverage.

Phorm is different though. Through a deal with ISPs, Phorm watches everything you watch, and takes notes. If you look at gardening content, it adds you to a gardening segment of its users, and enables interested advertisers to target you later. But Phorm differs from other behavioural systems in one other major way. They don’t keep any data.

The search you make, or site you look at, allows them to segment you as a user. But Phorm discards the information it scanned to conclude this – it doesn’t need it anymore. So in some senses, Phorm is a lot less worrying than Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, who keep your search history for between 13 and 18 months.

Most of us value our privacy, guarding it both from crooks and unwarranted intrusion from government. But privacy is also an area where you find a lot of people wearing tinfoil on their heads, convinced the CIA is reading their brains using microwaves, and this can make it harder for the rest of us to tell what’s really important to worry about.

So Phorm have opened a can of worms. It may be that what they do is in reality less invasive of privacy than many of the practices its critics object to. But this is ignored because Phorm are a good target, and they’ve helpfully stuck their head above the parapet. And in doing so they may have successfully spread consumer concerns about privacy beyond just the tinfoil lobby.