On Privacy

I’ve written about Xobni for Outlook in the past, but a recent experience illustrated the role data will play in the future and ultimate implications for privacy. 

When it first launched I tried freecycle and several months ago I signed-up again to see how the service had evolved and was progressing.  Because I knew this would be accompanied by a slew of emails and I didn’t want the frequent emails to hit my Inbox, I filtered them to a separate folder.  I recently perused the folder and noted my xobni window began to update. As you know, Xobni pulls information in from sites like LinkedIn and Facebook.  After matching emails, Xobni will retrieve all available information. When a matched LinkedIn profile exists Xobni pulls in all available including location, title, and current employer.  With 100M+ users now, it is becoming more common to see LinkedIn profiles populated. For unconnected “friends” on Facebook where emails are matched it will pull in what information is allowed by the user – which typically consists of at least the profile photo.   

The emails sitting in my freecycle folder also contain information.  For example, A. W———- is giving away “10 baby pacifiers in excellent/like new condition. 4 of them are girl colors, the other 6 are gender neutral. Nuk and Playskool brands.”  This offer seems logical, her Facebook photo – delivered into my inbox via Xobni – presumably shows her son (age 2.5) and daughter (7 months).

Clearly it isn’t a stretch to presume someone giving away pacifiers has children who recently grew out of pacifier use. But what about Nikki C—– who offered a “potty time elmo doll, need batteries. Also comes with potty, potty time elmo book (interactive sound book-works) small book for elmo. I’m also including a cookie monster and cabbage patch doll.” Sounds like the mother of a young, recently potty-trained child.  In fact, Nikki is a 21 year-old college student and “Independent Childcare Provider” in the DC region. She probably cares for a child that is approaching 3 years-old.   

I could go on, but the point in all of this is information is created (or perhaps relinquished is the more appropriate term) for use in a specific setting. Users relinquish information to specific services to extract value from that service. I doubt Nikki realized I would know what she does and where she goes to school when she sent me an email and A. W—- didn’t know she was telling me the gender and approximate ages of her children or Holly who emailed me her mobile phone number and presumably has children in Hayfield Secondary since she belongs to the Hayfield Secondary network on Facebook. 

None of them likely internalized the fact they were actually emailing ME when they hit send and surely didn’t recognize that computing power would in seconds provide layers of potentially rich information on their personal lives. With the simple addition of their email address to my description of the personas listed above, I could have added to those layers. 

Xobni is first and foremost an email management tool.  LinkedIn and Facebook integration are designed to facilitate that management.  But in a very simple way Xobni shows how information is rapidly aggregated and shared. I’m not a privacy hawk, but the simple example above highlights potential externalities of information sharing.

More, we are just seeing the beginning of an approaching wave of innovation around data aggregation. Data creation – of which we are doing more than ever before – begets organization. With inexpensive computing power data creation also begets more data. Algorithms can identify previously unrecognized information.  In this way, computers take a mosaic approach to information organization – and ultimately reveal thing that hadn’t been explicitly released.  Over the next 36 months we are going to see a plethora of services intent on rearranging information and squeezing out hidden value.  

I’ll write more about it in another post, but I believe one of the key elements behind wildly successful ideas or companies – and especially in the digital realm – are the ability to organize dispersed data and create meaning. This will be a major influence on the companies sprouting in the next few years.     

Users (and especially American users) give their information away and that won’t change.  Many cry foul when this information is misused but we quickly forgive when offered something in exchange. The foundation of (potentially intrusive) mobile coupons/discounts is built on this premise. 

So what do we learn about privacy from all of this? Managing your online identity is no longer solely about controlling what lands on the top results of a search engine query of your name.  Managing your digital identity is about (1) recognizing what information you disseminate where, (2) what information will leak from that sharing, and (3) what the sum of these information tell about you.