Privacy issue looms large as technology probes deeper

There is much promise for the marketer in many of the latest tools for finding and predicting buying trends. Marketers will be able to tell us what we like and why we like it, if the payoff of this technology equals its promise.

There is much promise for the marketer in many of the latest tools for finding and predicting buying trends. Marketers will be able to tell us what we like and why we like it, if the payoff of this technology equals its promise.

That these tools will continue to be developed and incorporated in every database there is little doubt. Whether they deliver the demographic goods--thats another question.

Im talking about such things as data mining tools, which will go well beyond just detecting simple trends such as buying patterns and fraud. They are capable of thoroughly searching through data to discover the vaguest relationships, or answer questions too specific for traditional query tools. They will be able to predict definite future events or trends, such as which customers are likely to close their bank account; find out which customers are likely to buy beer with nappies from your supermarket; and detect statistical deviation significant enough to suggest fraud or other worries. And with the development of neural network technologies which can closely mimic human thought, these predictions will be more than plausible; they will seem psychic.

If these tools are merely very useful for companies and not overly intrusive to individual privacy--unless you happen to find marketing material targeting your love of beer and nappies offensive--few will complain, but software that tracks digital footprints (tracking where you went on the Web, for instance) could be more annoying for some.

Using the information gathered, such as how long you paused at those porn/game/splatter/news Web sites, which routes you took to get to favoured pages, or how little of your Internet surfing was actually devoted to your job, you can be fingered to your boss, or sent marketing material or merchandise of a kind youd rather people didnt know you enjoyed.

Then there are other methods of data collection, such as via credit cards or, eventually, smartcards, that also track what you buy and where, or the rapidly approaching caller line identification (CLI), which will let companies bring up your files before they answer your call. They may already have predicted that you will be closing your account using their data mining tools, and have organised a sales pitch or special deal to try to change your mind. They may already have predicted that the pitch will not work, of course.

These are all variations and enhancements of the ratings and polls that have been taken since Edmund Hillary was a lad, which tried to assess before the fact where your vote (or TV remote) would go, and after the fact why it went there. This is statistical analysis taken to its (techno)logical extreme.

Whether or not technology--and, by extension, pollsters, pundits and marketers--will be able to effectively predict our every move depends on how closely scientists can duplicate the workings of the mind, both individually and collectively.

Advertising companies speak loudly of "Generation X"--a generation of anti-consumer consumers who reject many previously successful selling methods--and will be very keen to adopt these technologies to pinpoint the likes and dislikes of new generations. Nevertheless, modern fashion companies have been extremely successful in selling to Generation X (a term almost certainly invented by marketers themselves); just ask the makers of Mossimo shirts or Burton snowboards.

Understanding customers and their needs is one thing, but privacy gatherings around the world are hearing that the more customer-specific information gathered, the more sensitive and judicious companies have to be with its use. The appropriateness of the information and how it is used, the absolute need to know, and the clear consent of the people involved are some of the key issues for those about whom information is accumulated.

It's bad business to upset customers unnecessarily, and if they can remain confident that fact-gatherers are using information responsibly and for the ultimate benefit of the customers themselves, their fears will be (somewhat) quietened.

Clear rules about the use of these tools and the information that they disclose must be enforced and reviewed regularly--the pace of change in technology has made many a well-intentioned piece of legislation outdated almost before the ink has dried.

(Broatch is Computerworld's features editor. He can be contacted at mark_broatch@idg.com.)

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