Privacy: Who's tracking your online data?

Facebook home page

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

BOB MOON: The founder of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks
says he'd prefer to keep the details of his life to himself. But over the weekend, Julian Assange told London's Sunday Times that his mounting legal costs have required him to sign an $800,000 book deal for his memoirs. He, better than anyone, might know that there's not much that stays secret in this age of the Internet. We heard a lot this year about how much companies know about us. Our own Stacey Vanek-Smith got her data mined this year and she joins us to talk privacy. Hey Stacey.

STACEY VANEK-SMITH: Hi Bob.

MOON: So data mining is something companies have been doing for years. Why have we heard so much about it this year?

VANEK-SMITH: Well, Facebook. That site has changed the data mining game entirely. A few years ago, the best information a company could get on a consumer probably came from their Internet searches, what they were Googling. But with Facebook, companies can find out a lot more. And coupled with our search data, it's pretty powerful. Here's what data miner Robert Grossman was able to find out about me using my Facebook page coupled with my Google search history.

ROBERT GROSSMAN: I know your hometown, which is Boise, Idaho. I know where you work. You work pretty hard doing queries for work, but THEN it looked like in the evening, you would watch TV shows like "Glee," look at travel locations. I could see that you were interested in doing a trip to Berkeley, San Francisco.

MOON: Now that would creep me out. That's a lot of information!

VANEK-SMITH: It did creep me out, and it is a lot of information. But if you think about it, your Facebook page is like a consumer profile that you have built yourself. So advertisers can look at it and see who your friends are, where you like to go, what music and books you like, what you're planning to do this weekend.

MOON: What do they do with the information?

VANEK-SMITH: Well, that's interesting. All of this sounds very "1984," but honestly advertisers are mostly using this information to show us ads for things that we're pretty likely to want or need. So if you like Arby's, on your Facebook page you'd get a coupon for a roast beef sandwich and you'd actually want to use it.

MOON: OK, but it's not only advertisers that get a hold of this information. Are there worries that, let's say insurance companies, others might get this?

VANEK-SMITH: That's very true. The worry is that insurance companies and like creditors might get this information. So if you have a lot of bankrupt people in your social network, your access to credit might be affected. Or if your friends are all smokers, your health insurance premium might go up. And we're actually starting to see that happen a little bit.

MOON: Well what can people do about this going forward? Haven't there been attempts by lawmakers, even computer and software makers, to let people block their information?

VANEK-SMITH: Yes there have. Honestly though, it's going to be really, really hard to do that -- especially since creating that data is something we do in our free time on things like Facebook. I put that question actually to Matt Britton. He's the CEO of social marketing firm, Mr. Youth. He said what we really need to focusing on, the real solution, is to take ownership of our data.

MATT BRITTON: Building your personal brand is something that's going to be so incredibly important in this new economy. Consumers need to craft the right brand using everything from LinkedIn to Facebook to Twitter. Everything you're putting out there can precipitate a lot of what will happen in your life in terms of how you're perceived by everyone -- your friends, your colleagues, prospective mates and prospective employers.

MOON: Wait a minute, so I've got to be a brand now with brand images and all that?

VANEK-SMITH: It's brand Bob Moon.

MOON: OK.

VANEK-SMITH: In a way, yes. Our online profiles are something that we have to manage. And they can really take on a life of their own. So Bob, I know what a big "South Park" fan you are, right?

MOON: No, no. But OK.

VANEK-SMITH: Anyway, well, you will be now. So there's an episode of "South Park" where Stan actually has a showdown with his Facebook page.

FACEBOOK PAGE FROM "SOUTH PARK:" I'm your profile, and as you can see, I'm much more powerful than you!

STAN FROM "SOUTH PARK:" Dammit, I should have deleted you a long time ago!

FACEBOOK PAGE FROM "SOUTH PARK:" The fact of the matter is, I'm up and running now with almost a million friends... I don't need you anymore. Who is more powerful -- the user or the profile? Let's end this once and for all!

MOON: Ooh, so don't leave us hanging here, who wins?

VANEK-SMITH: Well, you know they can't kill off a main character. I guess, unless it's Kenny.

MOON: Yeah, but aren't they killing off privacy?

VANEK-SMITH: Well, yes. I guess so. You could sort of look at 2010 as the year that privacy died. Actually, my favorite thing about this topic -- the topic of privacy -- came from Andreas Weigend, he's a data mining expert at Stanford. Here's what he said.

ANDREAS WEIGEND: Maybe privacy was just a blip in history. It started when people moved to cities, where they had places to hide. And it ended with the Internet, when basically there was no place to hide left.

VANEK-SMITH: Weigend says as as culture, we've basically traded privacy for social connectivity. And he says the younger generation doesn't even respect or value privacy at all.

MOON: Well, I'm sure this isn't the last we've heard of this Stacey because as they say, you can run, but...

VANEK-SMITH: You can't hide.

MOON: Marketplace's Stacey Vanek-Smith, thank you.

VANEK-SMITH: Thanks Bob.

MOON: We've got more of the 2010's top business stories
in our year in review series,
as well as our most popular slideshows, videos and other features.Check out the series here.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...