July 19, 2012

Conversation with a Privacy Professional – Part I

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With only a few months at SpiderOak under my belt, and new to the world of careful consideration around privacy and security, I’m learning things I’ve never considered. I’m always the first to adopt social media, I use Gmail without a second thought, and historically haven’t really cared who has my (what I thought was) basic info.

But I sat down with a “privacy professional” who breathes this stuff and has been concerned with personal privacy most of his life. And true to his nature, we kept his identity private. For the sake of this piece, let’s call him Walt.

“Privacy starts with where you receive your dead-tree postal mail. If someone really cares about privacy, perhaps because they’re a celebrity, they have enemies, a stalker, or just because they want to be prepared, they move and then never again connect their name to their physical address,” he told me. He said that most privacy techniques started with celebrities and wealthy people who had strong reasons to protect their privacy, for example, so that their kids wouldn’t be kidnapped for ransom. Walt continued about the benefits of using a mailbox at UPS or the post office: “You don’t have to change your address when you move, and companies can’t profile you based on where you live. No one will examine your trash.”

He referenced this New York Times article from earlier this year, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets”, particularly the story about how Target knew a teen was pregnant before her father, due to her buying habits they were tracking. The enraged father called Target, how dare they send coupons for strollers and maternity clothes to his daughter, only to find out…whoops. Tricky Target, or foolish us? (Now Target has learned to send that page of ads for cribs and maternity clothes, but also include an ad for a lawnmower and a grill, just so it seems like a regular un-targeted mass mailing.)

And this is Walt’s point. Most people’s consumer shopping habits are fairly set, so Target, and companies like it, have invented algorithms to predict age, family size, if you are likely to be pregnant, etc, and use this information to target people in periods of transition long before its public. Every time you use a loyalty card or use a credit card to pay at a store, your purchases are linked to your identity, and added to the company’s big database interactions with you. They track and profile which days and times you prefer to shop along with your purchase history.

“This has been going on for decades,” Walt said. “Companies do crazy thing with your personal identifying information. But most people have no idea how their information is being used. They are also under no obligation to keep this data to themselves. They sell it to other big database marketing companies, who buy from many sources and then merge to create very detailed profiles. The DMV in Florida is getting in on this action, selling drive and auto licensing info to advertisers. If you file a police report for a burglary at your home, expect to start getting calls from companies trying to sell you alarm systems.”

Stay tuned for Part II, which we will publish tomorrow.

If you’re interested in reading more on this subject, here are some interesting articles: