Friday, October 23, 2009

PAW conference, privacy issues, déjà vu

I attended the Predictive Analytics World conference this week and I thought it was very succesful. Although the conference was fairly small, I heard several interesting presentations and ran into several interesting attendees. In other words, I think the density of interesting people on both sides of the podium was higher than at some larger conferences.

One of the high points for me was a panel discussion on consumer privacy issues. Normally, I find panel discussions a waste of time, but in this case the panel members had clearly given a lot of thought to the issues and had some interesting things to say.  The panel consisted of Stephen Baker, a long-time Business Week  writer and author of  The Numerati, (a book I haven't read, but which, I gather, suggests that people like me are using our data mining prowess to rule the world); Jules Polonetsky, currently of the Future of Privacy Forum, and previously Chief Privacy Officer and SVP for Consumer Advocacy at AOL, Chief Privacy Officer and Special Counsel at DoubleClick, New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner in the Giuliani administration; and Mikael Hagström, Executive Vice President, EMEA and Asia Pacific for SAS. I was particularly taken by Jules's idea that companies that use personal information to provide services that would not otherwise be possible should agree on a universal symbol for "smart" kind of like the easily recognizable symbol for recycling. Instead of (well, I guess it would have to be in addition to) a privacy policy that no one reads and is all about how little they know about you and how little use they will make of it, the smart symbol on a web site would be a brag about how well the service provider can leverage your profile to improve your experience. Clicking on it would lead you to the details of what they now know about you, how they plan to use it, and what's in it for you. You would also be offered an opportunity to fill in more blanks and make corrections. Of course, every "smart" site would also have a "dumb" version for users who don't choose to opt in.

This morning, as I was telling Gordon about all this in a phone call, we started discussing some of our own feelings about privacy issues, many of which revolve around the power relationship between us as individuals and the organization wishing to make use of information about us. If the supermarket wants to use my loyalty card data to print coupons for me, I really don't mind. If an insurance company wants to use that same loyalty card data to deny me insurance because I buy too much meat and alchohol, I mind a lot. As I gave that example, I had an overwhelming feeling of déjà  vu. Or perhaps it was déjà lu? In fact, it was déjà écrit! I had posted a blog entry on this topic ten years ago, almost to the day. Only there weren't any blogs back then so attention-seeking consultants wrote columns in magazines instead. This one, which appeared in the October 26, 1999 issue of Intelligent Enterprise, said what I was planning to write today pretty well.

1 comment:

  1. It is a good and simple idea that a site should have “smart” and “dumb” versions. I think there is another version and that is “smarter”. A site can use differential privacy to still provide global, statistical information about the data while preserving the privacy of the users whose information is in the data set. However, I think it is still debatable whether it is worth of trying to use personal data to provide better services while jeopardizing one’s privacy, especially knowing it is possible that the suggested coupons from loyalty card data may not what the customer wants.

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