Company News · February 12, 2010

When Does Marketing Cross the Privacy Line?

By mdecesare

Did you ever get that feeling that you were being watched? I think we all have at one time or another, but it’s usually after you’ve watched a suspenseful movie or when you are walking alone and feeling “unsettled.” Most of us wouldn’t get that sensation at a grocery store, but depending on where you shop that could be exactly what’s happening, and you don’t even realize it.
Advances to modern technology have made it possible for companies to capture your key demographic information and hone in on it with ads specific to you. Social networking sites, online retailers and even brick and mortar stores are taking advantage of this capability “to better serve you,” or so they say.
You could argue that this specialized marketing, which is quickly becoming almost standard practice for online sites, is just doing a more efficient job of giving you the ads you want and sparing you the ones you don’t. But what if you don’t want your info mined? Should you have a say in what gets collected?
Opponents of this practive would say that yes, privacy is your right and consumers should at least be told that their data was being “mined” in this fashion. The World Privacy Forum has argued that as this practice continues to move to offline avenues with more digital signage, the creation of a “One Way Mirror Society” is being set up, where the unassuming consumer has no idea that they are being monitored for their behavior and shopping habits.
Take, for example, cameras that are installed in grocery stores that are not there for security, but instead to analyze shoppers through sophisticated facial recognition software. Unbeknownst to the consumer, these cameras are capturing data on what they are noticing and how long they are engaged with ads, as well as their basic demographics.
Another potentially intrusive example is a technology that attaches radio frequency devices to shopping carts to provide a “heat map” of the store for marketers to review that shows which areas of the store receive the most traffic and which the least.
Some predict that this covert data capturing will become a major point of discussion as technology continues to make it possible (and easy) to track consumer behavior however and whenever they can. I do believe that this will heat up and cause some valid debate, but whether any laws or disclosure requirements stem from it remains to be seen. Who would get involved? The ACLU? EFF? Or another organization created specifically to be a watchdog to these sorts of potential privacy issues?
So, the next time you are at the market and are annoyed because your favorite brand is sold out, watch what you say and do, because you never know who is watching. Even when you think you are all alone in the aisle, you most likely are not.

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