Profiling Vs. Privacy

The growing momentum in the use of profiles to target web and email audiences brings with it a growing concern over consumer privacy.

Unfortunately, recent industry news includes several stories about high-profile companies running into privacy problems. RealNetworks disclosed that its RealJukebox software tracked users through unique identification numbers assigned to its software., then changed its privacy policy.

At the same time, InfoBeat, a web newsletter service owned by Sony Music, revealed that potential leakage of email addresses to advertisers had been found and corrected.

By coincidence, these stories broke near the time the FTC conducted hearings in which privacy advocates asked the government to ban Internet customer profiling and a coalition of advertising companies, including DoubleClick and Engage, announced the adoption of policies to disclose what information is collected and inform consumers on how to stop being profiled.

Stories like these make it appear that web users don’t want to be profiled; however, a study funded by DoubleClick that was released at the FTC hearings indicates that most consumers approve of the use of profiles to personalize web content and banners IF they are informed beforehand about how their data will be used.

The key here is that web visitors don’t like to be surprised about how their data is being used. At the urging of the FTC, the privacy policy at each site is now expected to disclose how profiles and other information are collected and used.

A spot check of the privacy policies at a few high-traffic sites showed that most sites mention that third-party ad servers may be collecting profile data. One of the clearest is at Lycos, which includes the phrase “third party advertising networks may issue cookies when serving advertisements,” and it goes into detail about other tracking and profiling activities.

At the other end of the spectrum is the FedEx site where their privacy policy says, “None of the information collected by FedEx is shared with other organizations for commercial purposes.” This appears to be at odds with the use of a DoubleClick invisible tracking graphic on its airbill tracking page. Each time I track a FedEx package, DoubleClick learns about my interest in using FedEx.

As we enter a heavy selling season for e-commerce sites, it’s time for a quick privacy check-up to ensure consumers won’t get an extra surprise for Christmas. Take time to review your privacy policy to see if it accurately describes any new services or affiliations that you’ve added.

  • Have you started storing user IDs in cookies?

  • Do you participate in an affiliate program that tracks users who go to another site?
  • Does your site link to an outsourced shopping cart or other e-commerce site?
  • Are you linking to an outside, personalized email service that captures profile data on your behalf?
  • Is a banner ad service used that tracks users across sites??

These are just a few of the ways that web marketers are expanding the capabilities of their site by collecting profiles and using outside services, so be sure to take a look at all of the ways that user data is collected.

Having a one-to-one relationship with web visitors and customers should be based on knowing and trusting each other. What better way to earn that trust than to have no surprises this Christmas season regarding your use of customer profiles to improve the web experience.

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