The blurry edges of e-privacy

'You close the door when you go to the bathroom not because you're doing something bad in there but because others might not care to share the experience.' - Judith Martin, Miss Manners

"You close the door when you go to the bathroom not because you're doing something bad in

there but because others might not care to share the experience." - Judith Martin, Miss Manners

Can we give Bill Clinton some privacy? Zippergate, which was a trivial scandal compared to its recent predecessors, pretty much ended it. Not that the current presidential candidates help anything by parading their religiosity on their sleeves. This goes beyond poor fashion sense. The presidency already resembles an episode of the TV programme Big Brother. Why worsen the situation by making a private matter public?

Presidential privacy may be both an oxymoron and a hopeless issue, but the issue of customer privacy is very much alive. Consumer advocates thunder (as always) that it's important; industry (as always) whines that it should be self-policing; and politicians (as always) hold hearings on the subject.

But what's the subject? "Privacy" is more slippery than a presidential candidate. But because IT helps formulate and implement privacy policies, you need to understand it. And it's complicated.

For example, does automated identification violate privacy? "Yes!" consumer advocates yell, but does it really? The Internet has properties of place - your activities in cyberspace happen there, not in your home. The right to anonymity isn't absolute in actual reality; why should it be in virtual reality?

Everyone knew Norm's name at Cheers, and that didn't violate his privacy. Presumably, when Norm first began to patronise Cheers he introduced himself to Sam. Sam's remembering his name was an act of courtesy, not a privacy violation. On the other hand, total strangers can't just grab your wallet and read your driver's licence, just because they want to. Nor, for that matter, can the police, unless they're investigating a crime.

This gives you a pretty good guideline. A customer's right to anonymity isn't absolute, nor is it solely a matter of permission. But neither is it waived just because a customer enters your Web site, any more than anonymity is waived when a customer enters a department store. This means your company's identification process should be explicit and overt: a log-in process or a request for permission to set a cookie.

Does privacy mean your company shouldn't track and predict customers' buying preferences once you've legitimately identified them? Woody knew what kind of beer Norm liked, and that didn't violate Norm's privacy - presumably, Norm would have been offended had it been otherwise.

If you tell me something, I don't violate your privacy by remembering it. If you buy something, pay with a credit card and provide a shipping address, the seller doesn't violate your privacy by recording the transaction and using the information - until it sells the information to another company. It's fine for Sam to know whatever Norm tells him about Vera. It isn't fine for Sam to sell Vera's name, address, telephone number and size to the lingerie shop down the street.

But what if your company owns both Cheers and the lingerie company? Then the rules get fuzzier. So in your privacy policy, list the companies and brands that share customer information. If you state the policy and your customers agree to it, there's no privacy violation. If they don't agree they can take their business elsewhere. It's a matter of mutual consent, as it should be. (If you have no policy, caveat emptor, but shame on you.)

As for companies such as Doubleclick that surreptitiously follow you from site to site, in real space we call that "stalking", and we arrest people for it.

Why should cyberspace be any different?

Why indeed? Send Bob an email at Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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