Privacy business

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Cory Treffiletti has been reading the small print in the Privacy Policy of his auto financing company, which he shares in his Online Spin column at MediaPost. It says:

“The types of personal information we collect and share depend on the product or service you have with us.  This information can include: Social Security number and income, payment history and purchase history, credit history and assets.”

And also:

“Reasons we share your personal information – for our everyday business purposes, for our marketing purposes, for joint marketing with other companies, for our affiliates’ everyday business purposes, for our affiliates to market to you.  Can you limit this sharing?  No.”

As Cory points out, and as discussed in this space in the past, the online privacy discussion can seem terribly unbalanced at times. In a side-by-side comparison with the detailed personal information harvested in a variety of other business transactions - from magazine subscriptions to grocery check-out - the quality of data captured by online ad delivery seems positively benign.

Does the imbalance exist because we think consumers give explicit permission to capture personal information to the supermarket and their data partners, such as Catalina Marketing,  when they swipe their frequent shopper card?  What gives Cory’s auto finance company the right to share his Social Security number with marketing partners? The fact that he borrowed their money and was required to surrender his Social Security number in the process? 

There is an increasing amount of talk about the economics of privacy, and many people are pointing out that in an information-driven world privacy will be expensive. Yes, well, clearly privacy is already about money and already expensive: auto lenders are able to trade in sensitive personal information depending “on the product or service you have.”  You can stay off the grid, but only if you can afford to pay cash for your vehicle.

It follows that if we think advertising is a less explicit (and less expensive) arrangement between consumer and marketer, then we may be thinking that marketers should not be entitled to the detailed personal information that transfers to them offline through their explicit customer interactions. An online advertising exposure should be proportionately less personal and useful only in aggregate, which sounds, of course, like an apt description of the process today. 

Unless, of course, you don’t agree that advertising is a less explicit arrangement with consumers or that the cost of information is correspondingly lower. If there was no advertising and consumers had to foot the bill for all the world’s information there would be a) less of it, and b) it would be substantially more expensive. Information might even revert to the privileged classes.

In any case, I will go home tonight and read the privacy statement on our auto lease.

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