The mobile net: Why to worry about privacy regs

The mobile net will bring privacy issues to the fore--and widen the social divide between those fearful of losing privacy and others who appear to celebrate it.

I was at an advertising conference last week. Some folks are concerned that privacy advocates will press the government to regulate the most common of tracking technologies: behavioral targeting. That’s the system that drops a cookie onto our computers to record many of our wanderings through the Web in hopes of targeting us with relevant ads.

I had just written The Next Net, about how we’ll be tracked on the mobile Internet. And I was thinking that if behavior targeting worries people, the data cascading from our phone use will terrify them.

But there are also plenty of reasons to worry about regulation. First, there’s a divide in our society between people extremely worried about erosion of privacy and others who appear, with their Web postings, videos and Tweets, to celebrate it. Which group wins? They both can.

Take a look at this new friend-finding location-based application for Facebook, Locaccino. It comes out of Carnegie Mellon. The idea is that people can fine-tune their privacy profiles, deciding who can see where exactly they are, and who gets a blurrier vision, or none at all.

The point is that millions of people are clearly eager to exchange all sorts of data. It’s a way for them to learn, make friends, find things, and have fun. What’s more, it supports a vibrant and innovative software market in a gloom-infested tech industry. Some of the innovation will go toward protecting privacy. Because privacy is something that both sides of this debate want and need, even if they don’t agree on what it is.

Regulations? The most important privacy regs, in my view, should mandate clear communications on how customer data will be used, and will limit tracking to those who have chosen to participate.

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