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Marketplace @ SXSW

Yik Yak, privacy settings and the anonymous economy

Ben Johnson Mar 18, 2015
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Marketplace @ SXSW

Yik Yak, privacy settings and the anonymous economy

Ben Johnson Mar 18, 2015
HTML EMBED:
COPY

In South by Southwest Interactive’s idea exchange, the goal is often trying to get some pattern recognition. Brands, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, academics — everyone is trying to get a sense of what is happening right now, and what is the Next Big Thing. Right now, data privacy is a huge issue. Over 100 events at Interactive tackle privacy as a topic, from drones to health care.

One of the week’s privacy-focused events was the release of a new login management system from Yahoo. The company is calling it an “on-demand password” system where, every time you want to login, you get a new code texted to your phone. For a company that has been pulling in user data — and fielding “change password” requests — for years this seems to make a lot of sense. But it’s also part of a larger recognition at Yahoo that users increasingly understand the value of data protection and control.

“It’s really important to provide our users with the tools and the ability to control what they share with us,” says Dylan Casey, a VP of products at Yahoo. “And, be as transparent as possible about what we do with it.”

Other people at Southby are here to talk about anonymity. For Yik Yak, one of the hot startups making an appearance at the festival, anonymity is a key feature. The app lets college kids share anonymous comments publicly with the entire campus community. There has been plenty of criticism leveled at Yik Yak for allowing racism, sexism, and worse to be posted without much accountability. Co-founders Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington say they are combating that content by adding filters for certain language. But they tout the app for recently alerting students to a campus shooting nine minutes before the college’s emergency alert system. And their promise of anonymity for users is bringing in cash.

“The company’s at about 35 people working on Yik Yak,” Droll says. “We’ve raised about 70 million dollars and we have a presence at just about every college campus in america.”

Yik Yak is one of many increasingly popular apps that offer anonymity as a big selling point. But many of these startups don’t have to worry about revenue yet. For Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Amazon, data is an incredibly valuable resource. Which is probably why those larger companies are trying to offer more general controls and protection–not anonymity.

Is there a way to mine data and offer some anonymity to a growing number of users who don’t want their email messages used for marketing ploys, or something worse? Security specialist at the company Rapid7 Nicholas Percoco says it depends on what you really want from your technology.

“By nature of using the device or service,” he says, “the benefit of that is that it’s tracking you.”  

Location based rewards, mapping, recommendations and more convenience based on the data we’re giving up is already here. And even if you do decide you do want anonymity as a user and are willing to do the work to get it, it might be a quixotic quest. Percoco says as time goes on, companies that pull in our data get bought and sold, along with our information. Take a bit from data column A and a bit from data column B, and a company, government or hacker can turn anonymity into your positive ID.

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