Information Design, Identity and Privacy

One of the great concerns of our time is that "they" have an enormous amount of information on us through our interaction with the digital world. Genuine issues of privacy, identity theft and so on are important to resolve for the health of our discipline. OK, so we should worry, but how much? Will advances in technology make this better or worse?

Let me give you a little background to understand the stories I want to share in this post. For some time I have had 2 PCs and a MAC. I use them for work, home and personal interests. I have different software on them and do different things in the digital world with them. In an ad hoc way it has been an interesting experiment, because I have been able to differentiate between the targeted information, adverts and emails I get for my differing digital persona.

My younger children are now 20 and 21. Part of the New Year ritual a few years ago was to have a discussion with them about GCSE, AS and A levels over which books, revision guides etc they needed and what help. Those were then ordered online from a number of sites.

On my first day back this year I got an email recommending GCSE, AS and A level and indeed undergraduate philosophy texts I might be interested in because of my past purchasing patterns. The site in question knows I am not a teacher, and indeed I have told them the ages of my children.

It is not my field of expertise, but I think I know enough about rules engines and data mining to find this pretty poor practice. When you consider the huge investments in data mining underpinning e-commerce, is this really the best we can achieve? What exactly is the problem? If it was one site it might be written off, but I have too many experiences about the shallow interpretation of data from a number of major players to dismiss this. Is the technology overhyped, is it bad systems or information design? Note that in this case, all the information about me is accurate, though some of it out of date. Even with accurate data, they don’t seem to be able to get close.

Another example to illustrate the point I am making. I was listening to a programme on radio 4. A remark was made which i wanted to check. I wasn't sure if I'd misheard it, or my understanding of the issue was wrong or out of date. When I got home I searched for "carbon dating".  I confess that I thought of myself as a man of the world but I had to look up the meaning some of the "adult" services that came my way because of an interest in carbon dating.

The final example relates to one of my pastimes. I love doing free competitions on the web. Indeed I've won some interesting prizes over the years. One win was a weekend in Vienna. I had to answer the question "In what year did Ultravox have a no 1 hit with Vienna?". I duly found the answer via a search engine. Over the next few weeks I was targeted with information about 80s revival bands and greatest hits compilations. There was a complete mismatch between my motivation for wanting the information and what the data gatherer thought my interests were.

There are many other examples I could give. I have sat through many presentations about CRM, data mining, targeted advertising and the lot over the last decade. I am sure my experience cannot be unique.

I asked at the start, how worried we should be about our digital footprints. If the examples I gave above are anything to go by, I have no fear at all.

I am not convinced that people in IT take the Information part seriously enough.

How will developments in semantic technologies, Bayesian methods and customer profiling actually reduce these types of bad examples or is the problem about information methodologies or systems practice? On different days I can convince myself of different things. I am genuinely unsure.

What this means is that I am unclear about whether advances in technology will actually make the privacy challenge a real issue or that it's not as big an issue as some would argue. Should my short term experience be seen as a guide or a red herring?

I buy a lot of things online and indeed I buy on the phone when I want to. I also fill in questionnaires. So let me raise my final point. Most questionnaires designed on the web are simply appallingly constructed. This is not an IT problem. Frankly it is a market research issue. What we have in common is the information issue. Let me illustrate. A lot of questionnaires ask if you have bought different things on line, how often and ascertain whether you might try a new service online or by phone. I can tick most of the boxes. Sitting at home writing this post I have been disturbed by calls from call centres with inane scripts trying to sell me; a new roof, life insurance, a health policy and a magazine subscription. All this has occurred in one evening.

What they don't seem to grasp is that I buy online and by phone, I don't get sold to! The amount of allegedly "personal" offers I am made is ridiculous. There is of course nothing new, GIGO!

I am passionate about the potential for e-services, whether commerce, government or social. Yet I find myself sympathising too often with people who tell me or I overhear that "it was a lot better before computers" or that "it's an IT problem".

The reputation problem falls on IT and the IT professionals, when the examples I’ve given above are not really "Computer" problems.

If we want IT to be a force for good, for new jobs and as an engine of growth, let us debate why we are seen too often as the problem, not the solution.

At the same time, how do we engage with other information professionals to reduce the incidence of the poor examples I've shared above?

Finally, if the examples I have given above are typical of others experiences then how serious an issue is the scale and accuracy of the information "they" have on us because of our digital footprint?

Happy New Year.

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    Duncan Campbell wrote on 22nd Jan 2010

    Vienna was not a number 1 hit for Ultravox - or at least not in the UK. It was kept off the number 1 spot by Joe Dolche's classic Shaddap you Face.

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  • 2
    Martin Brown wrote on 22nd Jan 2010

    Telephone preference service and/or an answerphone will see off annoying cold callers. But if you fill in loads of questionaires with your contact details you have only yourself to blame. If you don't want them ringing you up incessantly don't give them your phone number.

    Are you writing this through a time warp or something? A couple of years back it was true that a search for almost any village or town name would yield in the top ten links like "lapdancing clubs in X", "hot singles in X" and "houses for sale in X". But now only the last of these survives.

    Same for certain keywords Carbon dating or the far more risque Babes in the Wood - which used to bring up some very strange top 10 links. But not any more - at least not on Google or Bling. And the net nannys were every bit as bad - astronomy websites that mentioned "naked eye observing" were blocked by an over zealous major US product.

    Methinks you doth protest too much. The search engines are not perfect and a bit simple minded but they do attempt to plug these exploits after a while.

    My pet hate is that the banks say "we will never send you an email with links in" and then Barclaycard Secure registration acknowledgements breaks not only that rule, but fails to include adequate personal details to show that they are genuine.

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  • 3
    Ariadne Tampion wrote on 22nd Jan 2010

    I would very much like to see the highly acclaimed film 'Go Fish'. However I don't even dare look to see if Amazon have got it on DVD because, as a happily married mother-of-two, I don't want to be bombarded with recommendations for girl-on-girl merchandise!

    This must be an issue for the on-line vendors, too, as they will be losing sales for this reason.

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  • 4
    Jacqui Hogan wrote on 25th Jan 2010

    I have to say I agree Chris.

    It's a funny thing. For years and years many of us who've worked in sales were taught that we we should provide the environment and information for customers to buy from us, not that we should aim to sell to them! I can still remember being trained to do this as far back as the early 90s.

    I can't help thinking the internet has resulted in a big step backwards here. Or maybe it is the global influence? Maybe other countries just do things differently and this is what informs the internet sales culture?

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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