Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Did You Say Gold Mine?

The recent article in the Wall Street Journal  appeared to me to be so  fundamentally flawed that I would have to write something about it. Fortunately, my former colleague and current friend, Len Ellis beat me to it and wrote a far better response than I would have done....

There’s an old PR saying—“Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.”   So, I won’t post this comment on the Wall Street Journal’s web site but will share it here.

Its research on user-tracking software, “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” reported in three full pages of its July 31-August 1, 2010 weekend edition, is solid on facts but conceptually flawed.  After introducing the types of user behavior collected by cookies, Flash cookies and beacons, it asserts (fifth paragraph) that this data is packaged into profiles about individuals.

That’s simply not true.  Individual-level data are stored in what’s called a record inside a database and there the data just sit as raw material.  When someone queries the database, the software scans the data inside each record and sorts the records into groups that conform in greater and lesser degrees to the query.  The resulting group portraits are profiles. 

Typically, the software is designed so that profiles express a probability.  Measuring the variability of individuals on one or more attributes (the raw material), it differentiates these persons as more likely than those persons (the profiles) to behave in the way desired by a business marketer or a government administrator (the query).  This statistical differentiation then becomes the basis for real-world discrimination: treating these persons differently from those persons, in the service of business profits or government efficiency.  Social statistics at birth and all its descendants since including user-tracking software can parse populations into probabilistic groups.  The method cannot say—and does not want to say—anything at all about individuals as such.

That’s why consumers, despite telling pollsters that they are “concerned” or “very concerned” about online privacy, don’t use the privacy protecting tools that have long been available.  They know that this surveillance does not threaten them as individuals.  Scare-mongering about privacy by the media and activists only perpetuates the belief that individuals are important to business and government.  Fortunately, we aren’t.

Len maintains a blog here and is the author of a remarkably thoughtful yet accessible book around the same subject: Silicon Similacra: Post-Humans Of  The Machine Worlds which is available from here.