Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Your phone rings and you answer it. “Hello, this is Amanda from Enterprise Marketing Group. Would you be willing to participate in a brief survey of your favorite entertainment brands so that we can sell this information to businesses who want to improve their targeted advertising efforts?”

My guess is that you would probably hang up the phone on someone like this. What would be the point in helping a marketing company gather information about you just so they could send you more junk e-mail, postcards and coupons? Yet , if you have an active Facebook account you’re probably already sharing even more information with these same companies than you realize.

Facebook collects and stores every single fragment of information about you in their constantly enlarging database. They know who your friends are. They know your top 20 favorite films. They know the Top 10 books you’ve ever read. They know which Smurf you’re most like. They know your favorite TV shows. Even more than this, if you are consistent with your status updates, they also know what days of the week you go shopping, or take the kids to baseball, or spend a night out with your friends.

The genius of Facebook is that they have made the collection of your targeted, actionable data very entertaining. Because it’s fun to post your Top 20 favorite movies list to your Facebook page and then share it with all 250 of your friends so that they can also post their lists and share it with their friends, you’ll gladly do it. But, if someone from a professional marketing team called you on the phone to ask you the same information, not only would you hang up, you’d probably ask them to put you on their no-call list.

Before Facebook, and other social media sites, marketers had to depend on very general demographic profiles to essentially guess at what your favorite foods might be, or what your spending habits might involve. They could guess from your birth date that you fell into a general group (baby boomer, Generation X, Tweeners, Metrosexual, etc.), and based on your sex they could place you into a category most likely to purchase certain brands or shop at certain stores. Now, thanks to the growing mania of Facebook, marketers no longer have to guess about your favorite ice cream flavor – they know for a fact that you love Cherry Garcia from Ben and Jerry’s because you posted it on your profile, or shared it with a friend on your wall.

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about changes to Facebook’s privacy policy. Even their own CEO has been the victim of loop holes in the new policy, to hilarious effect. However, the greatest shock is still yet to come. One day, and perhaps it’s already started to happen, all the millions of terabytes of data Facebook has on file about you will be sold to the Enterprise Marketing agencies of the world.

What could be worse than that? Perhaps you’d better sit down for this part. As a friend and I were talking about this very subject one afternoon, he made reference to a chilling discovery about Google’s Picasa photo software. As he was uploading a picture of his family from a recent vacation trip to the museum, the software window that popped up said, “This looks like Aidan.” Aidan is my friend’s elementary-age son. He said his finger hovered over the mouse for a moment as he began to realize that the software had recognized his son’s face due to the tagging features they had used to identify him, and the rest of the family, on other photos that had been uploaded to the website.

Clearly, the applications of this facial recognition software are even more nefarious in the wrong hands. Now if anyone, anywhere, uploads a photo of you to the internet, people can find you and recognize you immediately. Your friends don’t even need to tag you in any future photos because you’ve already been tagged enough times for the software to get a lock on your features.

All of this makes me wonder if public outcry against the selling of our personal information might spawn the creation of newer, "Black Box" style social media where you might be asked to pay a premium to prevent your personal data from ending up on search engine results or allow your personal photos to be seen by the entire planet.

In fact, it makes me wonder whether or not Facebook themselves will eventually offer their users a pay-for-privacy black box solution. Not only would this solve the problem they've created themselves, but it would also earn them billions more dollars a year in revenues from users who value online privacy.

Even though there is a clear warning to this effect, many Facebook users are also unaware that when they participate in third party applications and games on Facebook (such as Mafia Wars, Farmville, etc.), they are granting permission for these companies to collect, use and sell their personal information, and often their friend's personal data as well.

In a safe and perfect world, facial recognition technology and personal information will only be used to direct you to the best deals on your favorite things at exactly the right moment by recognizing your face as you enter your favorite shopping mall, or online store.

Of course, we can only guess who might have already purchased information about you, and your family, and your photos, and your detailed personal likes and dislikes. Hopefully it will be the good guys who take charge of this data.


Keith Giles is a marketing copywriter and published author and blogger who lives in Orange County, California. Find out more at http://www.KeithGiles.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/keithgiles


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Keith, for pointing all this out to us. The only picture I have on my Facebook Page is from 1973...

SubC4i said...

Very scary news. However, toatally understandable since we are already quickly heading into the year 1984. Which is also linked to another conspiracy; I was born in 1984. Perhaps, they are watching me for that reason. My time is up, I got to go.