Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Online Privacy - Where We Are Today

I read an article recently about how "microtransactions" are revolutionizing the video game industry. For anyone who has dipped their toes into Facebook games like Farmville or Mafia Wars it's easy to see how this can happen - you get started for free, and then you have the option to spend very small amounts of money to get little online in-game benefits.

What concerns me lately is the rise of the information capturing industry, and how they take snippets of data about things you do online - call them micropayments of privacy -and sell them to businesses who compile them to make money. Now I'm not a conspiracy theorist or anything like that, and I do see the good side to all this information analysis - for example the ads that I see online are more often targeted to me, so they're more interesting and relevant than things I might have seen just last year. But I do wonder where all this might go.

The Wall Street Journal has done a great job of investigating this side of the industry in a series of articles here, here, and here.

Another site I didn't see mentioned in the WSJ reports was I see this site come up all the time on Facebook, mostly (but not entirely) from teenage friends and family who use it to "Like" certain things. For example you can like "Pretending to text or listen to your ipod to avoid awkward situations". 64,000 people have "liked" that phrase (idea? not sure what to call it), and by doing so have given access to their personal information stored on Facebook. The Welikeit website is very vague about who runs it and owns it, but their privacy policy is crystal clear -they're going to use whatever information they can get however they can get it, and they're going to plant cookies on visitor's PCs to gather even more info. Thousands of people a day use this website, so what does WeLikeIt do with the data?

I don't know, and I've not found anywhere on the internet that has looked into it. But it reminds me of the "Create Your Quiz" app which was extremely popular until Facebook shut it down for spamming and other unethical behaviors.

So buyer beware! These small things, like visiting websites and "liking" things on Facebook do come with a price tag, and only time will tell if these micropayments of privacy come back to haunt us someday.