WASHINGTON –Measured but tough rhetoric on a host of issues ranging from data mining by marketers to statistical profiling by law enforcement officials ricocheted for three days at last week's Computers, Freedom + Privacy 1999 Conference here.
No single issue raised more complicated questions and delivered fewer answers than the prospect of what constitutes one's “identity” on the Internet as we know it today. There was also widespread concern regarding how the data associated with one's identity was going to be managed by society's institution's in the near future.
There were legitimate distinctions made between traditional consumer targeting efforts by marketers versus the alleged increase of statistical profiling of citizens by law enforcement officials. But numerous overlaps were cited as well. And there was a tone to many of the discussions suggesting that the profiling practices conducted by marketers as well as government figures will come under increasing public scrutiny in the coming months.
Of course, from a direct marketing standpoint, consumer profiling is not new. But when viewed within the context of the numerous concerns raised by conference attendees, there was clear indication that complicated problems are around the corner for list managers as well as marketers who up until recently, have operated with little third party oversight in relation to how data is managed.
At issue especially was the notion of what constitutes legitimately “identifiable data” for the marketer's purposes versus what consumers would likely give permission to if they were more fully informed as to how data is “mined.”
There was even talk about “outing” leading business figures by releasing information about their families, their addresses and phone numbers on the Internet as a means of “bringing the issues” home to those who are in a position to make changes.
Fortunately, inherent in many of the discussions were repeated, sober acknowledgments by the academic community as well as the few commerce leaders present, that unavoidable paradoxes are now befalling leaders at every level of society, and that finding a “balance” of power among businesses, consumers and government was the key challenge that modern technology presents everyone.
Perhaps at the heart of the issue was the idea that consumers may ultimately come to “own” the data associated with their online identity as a targetable individual. And many commented on the notion of revenue sharing between and among consumers, producers, and those who will manage the brokering process. But the idea of data being related to marketable identity did not sit well with some who were quick to point out that inaccurately managed data can appear as (or be made to appear as) criminally suggestive behavior to law
enforcement officials in the online world.
Reasoned distinctions were made as well regarding how many organizations have come to hold “profiling control” over sensitive data such as hospitals, insurance companies, mortgage brokers, military recruiters, state driver's license bureaus etc.
Unfortunately, database management for the honest direct marketer was painted as something far more sinister than simple consumer prospecting when examined as a “problem” alongside government wiretapping, law enforcement statistical profiling and the velvet hammer of European privacy law.
However, there were calm, sophisticated characterizations of some of the challenges –many of which are not foreign to veteran direct marketers. For instance, rising infomediary figure, Steve Lucas, founder of Privaseek said early on in the conference that “consumers are going to continue driving issues, they ultimately will always demand choice and then proceed to comparison shop.” He also noted that business leaders need to courageously think about moving towards a model that says that a consumer owns their information, and to find ways for everyone to share in the revenue process.
Others disagreed arguing for more clearly defined legal boundaries that insure the individual's privacy as well as the use of information about them by third party vendors. And the roar of applause that came from the audience each time privacy law enforcement actions were mentioned suggested far too few direct marketers were present to protect their interests.
But Simon Davies, fellow at London School of Economics, warned repeatedly that
consumers as well as business people should be asking more questions and getting angry when they don't get answers. Perhaps best capturing the state of affairs was a remark by Stephen Lau, Hong Kong's privacy commissioner for data. Lau said more one once that “people have to recognize that the Internet is still a very insecure environment.” That statement prompted discussions about encryption technology, followed by perhaps the most thunderous applause of all throughout the entire conference when Barbara Simons, president of the Association for Computing Machinery called for a lifting of all U.S. government bans on the export of high level encryption software.
The most ominous moments of the conference seemed to occur during a panel discussion entitled The Creation of a Global Surveillance Network when Representative Bob Barr addressed the audience briefly about emerging issues that transcend party lines, business and government.
Barr talked passionately about challenges to democracy, the tracking of computer crime and problems associated with “divide and conquer” politics that leave important privacy matters left unaddressed. In addressing the protection of privacy and the balances of powers, Barr said it was important to understand that “these topics don't break a down neatly upon party lines, and from a lobbying standpoint it makes sorting out all the issues much more difficult.” Barr drew particular attention to the federal government's “vast expansion of wiretapping” and said that business, technology, consumers and human rights leaders have “look for ways to make these issues nonpartisan. “Especially now more than ever he said, “The powers of business and government are often one and the same.”