In a breathless burst of concern, Ted Koppel of ABC's "Nightline" warned New York Times readers that "we cannot even begin to control the growing army of businesses and industries that monitor what we buy, what we watch on television, where we drive, the debts we pay or fail to pay, our marriages and divorces, our litigations, our health and tax records and all else that may or may not yet exist on some computer tape, if we don't fully understand what we're signing up for when we avail ourselves of one of these services." Whew-that's a lot of angst for one sentence.
I think what really irks our privacy guardians is that people seem to be willing to trade less privacy for greater convenience and safety. Most of us are ready to carry around passports that can track our whereabouts if they also allow authorities to keep an eye on suspected terrorist types who might be thinking about blowing up a few tunnels or bridges. The crux of the dilemma, of course, is that greater security can infringe on the free and unencumbered access of a few to make sure that the rest of us are safe.
I don't have any hesitation about opening myself up to a full-scale security check so I can get through airport lines faster and with less hassle. The "slippery slope" argument about the loss of freedom for us all doesn't persuade me.
Terrorism vs. safety, however, is a trade-off that's easier to justify than marketers wanting personal data to develop more relevant products and advertising. There's got to be a meaningful benefit for consumers for them to fork over personal data, and most of the time there's not.
"One of the unintended trade-offs of the accountability debate is that marketers are becoming targeted to the point of controversy," said the CMO of a firm that tracks online consumer opinion. "We probably over-romanticized the potential for targeted marketing, and we may need to figure out models that aren't quite as alarming to consumers," he told Point, our monthly magazine.
What might blow up in marketers' faces is that consumers will sooner or later realize that companies unrelated to the products they buy are getting rich off of selling their names. And consumers are going to want a piece of the action.
Watch out for a class-action suit filed on behalf of consumers who object to having personal data sold by third-party brokers to marketers and other interested parties. As we said, "Gone are the days when information was just power. Now it's a tradable commodity."
A decision in favor of aggrieved consumers would establish a price for the sale of their names in the form of a royalty paid to each consumer whose name is sold. But just as the government has established do-not-call lists for people who don't want to be bothered by telephone solicitors, consumers will be able to sign up for "don't-resell-my-name " lists.
The marketing battles coming out of these privacy issues will be to establish, through royalties or other means, the right to use consumer names and data for marketing purposes.
The trade-off might be: If you allow us to use your vital statistics we'll make you a part of the decision-making process by sending you samples of all our new and test products. In a way Amazon is already doing this by giving book buyers recommendations for other books they might enjoy.
The alternative is heightened suspicion and a further erosion of consumer trust and confidence.