Trend: Users monitoring their own privacy online

By Anne Collier

It’s a new kind of monitoring software, not in the parental-control product category and not even in the new category of online reputation monitoring. It’s more like personal data monitoring and preference collection. Yes, I know, that certainly explains it, right? Well, in reporting on a startup service called Bynamite, the New York Times is finally picking up on danah boyd’s point, made in a keynote at the South by Southwest conference last March, about how social Web users want control over their privacy and confirming for me what I have written about how we all are increasingly signed on to a new kind of social contract in which our data is the “product” of Internet companies, and privacy and safety are a continuous negotiation among users and between users and providers. Taking it a step further, now, the Times’s Steve Lohr cites the view of a venture capitalist and a professor that our data (as expressed in online searches and social network profiles) have value from which we and not just search engines and social network companies might derive some financial gain.

But getting back to the monitoring aspect of this, Bynamite – a tiny startup in which VCs are interested even though it doesn’t yet have a business model – is right now a browser plug-in that shows users how their data are being used. It’s like a mirror, Lohr writes – a little like SocialShield or SafetyWeb about which I’ve blogged recently. And, like those new “parental control products,” users can change the “image” in the mirror. The difference is that the goal is not to improve reputations but to make it so their product preferences or interests are represented more accurately. “For example,” Lohr writes, “I don’t own a car, but my ‘automotive’ folder soon had several entries saying I was interested in Mercedes-Benz and other brands, presumably because middle-age men who visit the Web sites I do are typically attractive targets for car ads. I deleted the auto interests, suggesting to advertisers that I’m not necessarily a good prospect.” Eventually, if Bynamite has the trend right and gains momentum, users will be able to “use their portfolios of interests as virtual currency,” maybe getting discounts for products they click to from a targeted ad and then buy online. Another possibility, Lohr cites, is where a media site “might charge a monthly subscription fee of $10 for news or entertainment programming, but offer it for $8” to users who allowed access to their “preference wallets.”

[Note: Of late we’ve heard so much about the use of user data in social network sites, particularly, Facebook. But let’s not forget that this is a much broader trend. For even longer, our data has been used to target advertising in search engines and email services. As Lohr points out, every search is a transaction “involving a person ‘selling’ personal information [what he’s searching for] and ‘buying’ search results. But people do not think about, or are unaware of, the notion that typed search requests help determine the ads that Google displays and what its ad network knows about them.” The trend is that new tools like Bynamite will make this use of data more transparent and controllable, the Times suggests.]

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