Questions for Privacy Advocate Richard M. Smith

  |  October 6, 2003   |  Comments

You never know who'll fall under Richard Smith's watchdog eye, but he certainly has a knack for finding the bad guys. In a recent talk with ClickZ, Smith discusses how he spends his mornings, when super-personalized ads will arrive, and why digital marketers aren't as bad as everybody seems to think.

Richard Smith is semi-retired, and the privacy advocate -- having had a distinguished career marked by consulting and whistle-blowing on a range of data practices -- has settled into a slower, if no less involved, pace.

He has investigated companies large and small, calling many to the carpet for bad data and security practices. Microsoft and Intel both have been publicly slapped by Smith for using unique serial codes in their products. More recently, he has spoken out against Verisign's controversial redirect practices, and he keeps a habitual eye on emerging security and privacy issues.

ClickZ recently tracked Smith down for a conversation on the state of online privacy, and what might be on the horizon.


  1. How would you rate digital marketers among the bad actors when it comes to customer data and privacy?

    They're of a different kind, so it's hard to compare. The Web allows a media outlet a much closer view of what's going on. The New York Times Digital can track every article you read. Whether they try to use that, I don't know.

    If you subscribe to a physical paper, it's delivered to your house every day, and past that they don't know anything about your reading behavior.

    However, the other business print publications are in is renting out their subscriber list. They don't do that online, but offline you can rent the New York Times Sunday subscriber list. Digital marketers in general tend not to give away or sell information, whereas every magazine on this planet exchanges its subscription list.

    Web sites are less likely to do this because everybody's sick of spam, and they're afraid to be associated with that. That's the big worry, even though most spam comes from screen scrapers and email harvester programs. I think it's a myth that if you give your email address to one company a thousand companies get it.

  2. But what about the grand vision of completely targeted ads based on a huge amount of data?

    Web sites and database companies collect an amazing amount of data that isn't used. One offline example is the shopper loyalty card. A ton of data is collected there, but very little of that information is actually used. It's a bizarre human characteristic, sort of a packrat mentality. We collect it and then it sits around.

  3. So do you think we'll never see the extreme variety of personalized advertising of the sort depicted in last year's "Minority Report"?

    That movie's interesting. It talks about stuff that's more like ten years away than 50 years away, in my opinion. The eye scan won't be used to serve ads. It'll be RFID-based, and personalization will come in the form of loyalty and ID cards. What may happen is you'll walk up to a screen and they'll pitch you stuff based on who you are and what you've done before. As you walk around a store and up to displays you may get a coupon.

    "Minority Report" takes Web technology and moves it to the real world. The eye scans are similar to what cookies do. There was a cereal box in the movie with cartoons that looked like Flash animation on a Web site. (I turned Flash off on my computer because the screens were changing too much on me. I surf the web 1996 style.)

    I expect to see some of the stuff a little bit along the lines of that movie. Display screens will be getting cheaper. I don't think they'll say, "Hello Richard," but instead will use more of a Casino approach. They'll try to entice people to win big. There'll be an incentive to get the coupons and take part in promotions.

    Stop & Shop is using something called "Shopping Buddy." It's kind of a laptop screen on a shopping cart. You swipe your card through the unit and it follows you around the store, occasionally popping up coupons depending on the aisle you're in. I haven't seen this yet, but I've been meaning to go by and have a look. It's that "Minority Report" idea of taking Web technology and moving it into the physical world.

  4. What are the implications of the search industry for privacy and sleuthing?

    If I wanted to pick one company on this planet to use to get information about people, it'd be Google. They could make all sorts of personality guesses about people based on what they surf for. [Editor's note: Google last week agreed to acquire Kaltix, a technology company that some speculate might help Google personalize search results based on previous searches.]

    Librarians have been very upset about new Federal rules allowing the FBI access to citizens' library book checkout behavior. I don't mean any disregard to librarians, but they're being old-fashioned here. I think the FBI's more interested in what's happening on Google.

  5. Are there any online privacy issues related to marketing that in your opinion are getting less attention than they deserve?

    One, of course, is spam. You can argue about whether it's a privacy or online marketing issue. Every month it's getting worse and worse. One could argue not enough effort's being put into it.

    I save all my spam; I'm kind of weird that way. I like to watch how it grows, and I'm seeing it double every two or three months. We may get to a point where we all have to change email addresses every two years.

  6. Anything else about advertising now that gets your goat?

    One issue is how much advertising we can all consume in a day. Are we going to enter advertising overload after seeing however many thousand [ad units] in a 24-hour period, and will we then become disengaged from it? I don't know if anyone has measured that specifically. Occasionally, you see marketers trying to raise themselves above the fray and exert some caution. Then some nifty new thing comes along and they're all rushing headlong to use it.

  7. Describe a typical day in the life of Richard Smith.

    I'm a little bit retired now. For a couple hours in the morning I answer emails and search the news. Between those two things there are usually at least one or two issues I'm interested in.

    Yesterday, for example, the press went nuts about this company called Lover Spy that monitors keystroke behavior online. CNN and The New York Times both got interested. I was looking at the software, trying to figure out who's behind it. CNN brought in a film crew and filmed me talking about it. If I see something I don't like, I enjoy sticking my mittens into it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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