Data snatchers! The booming market for your online identity

A huge, mostly hidden industry is raking in billions collecting, analyzing, sharing information you put on the Web. Should you be worried?

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"We’re saying there’s a tremendous opportunity for businesses to tap into all that data by doing it in a way that involves and empowers the consumer." --Kaliya Hamlin, Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium

It might sound something like this, Hamlin says: "You tell us your income and your age and some of your interests, and we promise to use this information to present you with relevant content, [such as] an ad that matches your interests."

Internet Needs to Grow Up

Still, many people--on both the privacy and advertising sides of the fence--believe there is room both for consumer privacy and for Web advertisements and content targeting using personal data. But the veil of secrecy around the use of personal data would have to be lifted.

For that to happen, many believe, everybody in the personal data economy must be more realistic about the economics of the Internet. Advertising, in one form or another, pays the bill for all things free online. Everything that website publishers, content creators, and app developers give away online is paid for with advertising--advertising that is targeted by using consumers' personal data.

Consumers are complicit in the growth of the personal data economy because we have come to expect lots of free services online. From the Internet's earliest days, we've always ex­­pected a level of anonymity--but the more free services we use, the more personal data we must give away, and the less privacy and control over our data we have. It's up to us to find our own comfort zone between those two ideals, but we need information and transparency to make that choice.

The online advertising industry needs to become much more transparent about the ways it collects and uses our personal data. If it did so, we might be more inclined to believe its claim that carefully targeted ads actually help us by making Web content more relevant and less spammy.

If a website publisher or social network is offering a "free" service in ex­­change for the user's personal data, the site should be very clear about that exchange. The online advertising industry should give people options--a choice between "free and tracked" or "paid and not tracked," for in­­stance. That idea is nothing new; it's very similar to the free, ad-based services that also offer an ad-free premium service.

It's not a zero-sum game, where either privacy or targeting wins outright. Advertisers won't stop using personal data to target ads. And few consumers will quit using Facebook or other sites that collect personal data after they read this article. We can't expect complete privacy and anonymity online, but advertisers and marketers must understand where we expect privacy.

The challenge now is for everyone involved--consumers, advertisers, In­­ternet companies, and regulators--to understand how the personal data economy really works.

Only then can we start getting busy developing some rules of the road that balance the business needs of advertisers with the privacy needs of consumers.

This story, "Data snatchers! The booming market for your online identity" was originally published by PCWorld.

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