Privacy: We can collect data. Should we?

Let's discuss privacy for a minute. As I get up to speed in the web analytics space (and I do love numbers and analysis) I can't help but be reminded of the scene in Real Genius. You know, the one where Laslo asks "what would you use a 5 megaton laser for?" and Val Kilmer's character replies "I don't know, making giant swiss cheese? The applications are endless," and Laslo counters, "No, there's just one..." and goes on to explain plans to vaporize a person from space with a laser.

Okay, so web analytics isn't going to vaporize anyone from space, but some of the examples of how corporations use analytics from the recent eMetrics summit were down right scary. For example, there is the story about how an auto insurance company discovered your credit score was a strong predictor of your accident risk. Miss a payment? You might see your insurance rates increase. Or how the cable companies mine data about what you watch based on your cable TV box. Did you know your usage was being recorded? I didn't.

My favorite example is Capital One. This company analyzes if you are a customer worth keeping or not. If you call in to cancel your account, you might get the automated attendant if they don't want you or personal representative if they do. AND THEN the rep is authorized to offer you one of three rates. The highest rate (and biggest commission for them) is naturally offered first. Isn't this a bit sad and sneaky? Sad because they are making SO much money from you they have to try to keep you. Sneaky because they continue to price gauge you without you knowing.

On the other hand, there are times when I appreciate a company anticipating my needs. One example from the conference is ANWB, a European membership association somewhat akin to AAA here. They combine online data such as what a customer searches for on the website with offline direct mail campaigns. Unlike most websites, this organization uses a membership number to get a tight fit between who you are and what you want. The stated goal was "We search for the most valuable product for our members, not the most valuable members for our products." So I asked myself, would I appreciate an offer for a handy travel guide for China or toddler travel accessories after my recent exhaustive searches for such products? Yes, I probably would. This doesn't strike me as creepy, just useful.

The bottom line is we can collect tons of data on people and their habits, but should we? And to that end, shouldn't there be some required visibility? Something clearer than a 15 page privacy policy in vague wording set in 6 point type? Europe has tighter regulations than the US. Are we just too busy to care? What is the cost of leaking all my personal information? At some point, I imagine it's priceless.

Anyway, here are some interesting links:
International Association of Privacy Professionals (contains free newsletter with good articles)
Electronic Frontier Foundation Top 12 ways to protect your privacy online
The FTC's report to congress dated 1998
Wikipedia has a really nice summary of personally identifying information