Online Privacy and Small Revolts

I recently did a short story on some companies, including Spock, Wink, and Rapleaf, that are aggregating data from social networks, blogs, and Web sites online, whether for people search, reputation services, or simply to sell to companies to match with their own data.

Something that shocked me was that when Spock said it can’t delete people from its people search service even if they ask to be taken out of the index. Spock’s response? Even if they take the profile off that they have, unless you delete mentions of yourself from the Web, their search engine will simply automatically collect them again.

So I called a couple of competitors, Wink and PeekYou, and they both said that they could delete profiles, when people asked.

I frankly don’t know whether Wink and PeekYou are overstating their case or whether Spock is simply not trying hard enough. But it feels to me that technology that purports to be smart enough to collect data about individuals should be smart enough to delete it when asked. If these companies can’t deliver on that, it’s one place that they need to work on.

The bigger issue, of course, is what are our expectations for privacy these days. My editor always asks me when we talk about data collection whether there’s going to be a revolt. I don’t think so, now, though in the late 1990s I did think that, as more people were becoming aware of the new ways that data was being collected on them because of the Internet, there was a real push for more control over data. (Remember the brouhaha over Microsoft Passport and DoubleClick’s acquisition of Abacus?)

My feeling now is that with the rise of Gen Y, who grew up letting it all hang out online, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, we think less about privacy or what we should expect from companies that we deal with online.

So a big revolt? Not so much. Smaller ones? I am actually more convinced about these because we have seen companies respond to push back on specific products. This summer, Google announced that it would make data on individuals that’s stored on its servers anonymous after 18 months.

I spoke with Chris Sherman, founder of Web search consultancy Searchwise, about all this and asked whether he thought that the privacy concerns about the people search services were legit and whether he expected people to react to them. It didn’t get into my tiny article, so thank goodness for the blog.

“Absolutely,” he says. “How much information really is the right amount of information that can be disclosed? It seems that we have these flare ups of concern that are fairly regular. Each time the concerns are more sophisticated. It’s really an iterative process that we’re seeing, as the technology gets better, the consumer will be smarter, and the companies react. But ultimately I could see some kind of legislative controls put into place.”

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