(Please Get) Out of My Mind

I’m not a Libertarian, and had vowed not to write any more curmudgeonly blog posts about privacy for a while. But within the past few weeks, several things have happened that have led me to abandon that promise:

  • I read this article from The Wall Street Journal about “online actuarial research,” explaining how consulting firm Deloitte and insurers are mining online data and developing predictive models to determine whether given individuals would be low- or high-risk candidates for life insurance.  As the article explains, “These companies sort details of online and offline purchases to help categorize people as runners or hikers, dieters or couch potatoes. They scoop up public records such as hunting permits, boat registrations and property transfers … Increasingly, some gather online information, including from social-networking sites. Acxiom Corp., one of the biggest data firms, says it acquires a limited amount of “public” information from social-networking sites, helping “our clients to identify active social-media users, their favorite networks, how socially active they are versus the norm, and on what kind of fan pages they participate.”
  • I heard my umpteenth conference presentation about how facial recognition software, eye scanning, and neurometric tools will surface consumers’ pre-conscious, emotional responses to stimuli and detect how they really feel about you and your products, even if they don’t know it.
  • I stumbled across this excerpt from the eerily prescient movie, Minority Report. In it, the just plain eerie Tom Cruise is walking through a mall, as 3D retinal scanners track him and trigger advertisements that quite literally call his name.

Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the value of predictive modeling, and don’t question the right of market researchers or even actuaries to aggregate anonymized data for that purpose.  I recognize that marketers and retailers can benefit from understanding the pre-cognitive and emotional filtering that consumers engage in when bombarded by visual and auditory stimuli (though, as my husband noted, “My pupils may dilate while I watch Victoria’s Secret ads, but I’m still not going to buy you bras.”). And I understand that many consumers welcome targeted advertising geared to their interests (and resent Facebook and Google’s assumption that I’m a female, middle-aged, overweight, Jewish literary geek only because that’s precisely who I am).

No, what troubles me is the implied sense of entitlement, the assumption that brands and marketers have the right to get inside people’s hearts, minds, and ids.

On first glance, this may seem like a perplexing stance from a founder of Communispace, where our mission is to generate insights by being welcomed into consumers’ lives and walking in their shoes over time. But our success in that objective is premised not just on permission, but on relationship. It is driven by human collaboration, not just data excavation. And it doesn’t lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day, consumers’ conscious, intentional appreciation and organic promotion of good products and services is what drives sales.

 Deep consumer understanding fuels the development of these products and services, but obtaining that insight is not a right. It’s a privilege, one that we have to acknowledge and thank our customers for every day.