Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Technology. Show all posts

Friday, October 1, 2010

Internet Privacy and Prying Eyes

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
Marlon Brando

You are a 39 year old man who likes to play baseball, drink premium beer and go on long bike rides. You are married with two kids, work in the financial services field, own your own home, make roughly $150,000 a year. You have a college degree, and you struggle with mild depression. Have we met? No, and we probably never will, but I can find out everything about you simply because you like to surf the internet. Based on the keywords we use in search engines, our news sites, shopping habits and even simple things like restaurant reviews we write allow companies to get to know us more intimately than your neighbour and maybe even your spouse. Welcome to the world of today’s personalized internet marketing, a world that has moved well beyond simple cookies and even beacons. I am not talking about the ones mama used to bake or guiding lights, but something far more sinister. These new tracking tools are eyes designed to carefully and surreptitiously watch your every move and even everything you type, depending on the nature of the individual software that gets downloaded every time you open a webpage. And yes, I mean any and every webpage. Originally, these tools were meant to be harmless reminders of our preferences on a specific site: which geography we were in, our saved shopping cart items, and our shipping and billing information. In addition, these were cookies installed by the website, but today they have morphed into digital stalkers whose actions are akin to going through your trash. Worse yet, in many instances the site you are visiting may not even be aware that this type of watching software exists on its web page. It is increasingly being used by third party content providers of which there can be dozens on any given page, who are serving content from ad banners to free software downloads. Alarmed yet?

The people who capture and sell this information say that an individual’s anonymity is protected because we are never identified by name or address. But all this information is being collected from a combination of gleaning publicly available databases and using surreptitious tracking tools on the web as described in the opening paragraph. These companies then add some smart geeks who write programs that can analyze this information and attach assumptions by cross referencing things like home ownership records, family income, medical records and even favourite restaurants and brands you are loyal to and make very detailed and scarily accurate assumptions about each individual. This information is mostly packaged and sold to advertisers, marketers and even financial services companies who are quite likely to be making credit card and loan approvals based on these assumptions, which includes the credit worthiness of an individual. Even though financial companies claim that they are not using this information to profile or reject people for loans, but to better target their products and services. Marketers and retailers say they are able to more effectively do the same. I know from working on websites for various clients that we served up the landing page of a site by recognizing who you are, but this was non-intrusive and based on your visit and purchase history, and limited to your secure activity on that site (and with your consent). It was never based on your general surfing history or activity outside that particular website. The promise of this technology was individual customization; however, what I am now describing goes far deeper and uses information far beyond the reach and remit of one particular web merchant. For example “If we've identified a visitor as a midlife-crisis male," says Demdex CEO Randy Nicolau, a client, such as an auto retailer, can "give him a different experience than a young mother with a new family." The guy sees a red convertible, the mom a minivan.” (Wall Street Journal article: http://bit.ly/96MiWX).

I understand that the world we live in today is very different from the one our parents grew up in, or for that matter even from the one we grew up in. Technology has changed our lives in many ways, and one of the sacrifices of convenience and the instant gratification which we all seem to yearn, is our privacy. For us to not have to go through the pain of initiation and identification each time we land on a webpage, to shop or consume news, or read recipes means each site needs to remember who we are and what our preferences are. In simple terms it means that each time I go to read news I will not have to specify my geography for the edition I want or have to re-enter my credit card or shipping address each time I shop at my favourite online store. All this is reasonable to me and I am sure to most people, and more importantly we are able make this choice. You can, for instance, delete cookies after each internet session, and voila, the same site will treat you like a first time visitor until you sign in to your password protected account. However, in this new world, the majority of time we are not told, or even aware of, who is tracking and monitoring our surfing activity or how much of it is being watched, stored, analyzed and then sold to a third party. Many young people today seem to feel that privacy is an old-fashioned notion for an old-fashioned generation; I completely disagree, but that is a matter for another blog. If someone wants to share his or her life’s every waking moment, from brushing their teeth in the morning to crying themselves to sleep at night and everything in-between, then all the power to them (suffice it to say, I will never accept you as a ‘friend’ or quickly ‘un-friend’ you) but that is your choice and mine. Taking away my privacy or invading it without my knowledge is not acceptable, because I did not volunteer to give it up. This is where I have a fundamental issue with this new practice, and the laws that govern our privacy are hopelessly outdated for this new digital world. So for all those people who believed the internet was the last and greatest bastion of anonymity - simply put, you’re no longer a random IP address.

I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article and series I cited above, on Internet privacy. Below I am listing sites you can visit in order to Opt-Out from being tracked and a link to download Privacy Choice, a WSJ vetted software, which tells you who is watching you on every site you visit (the company that provides the software does not track or monitor you). While these are things you can do to take greater control of your privacy, you should keep in mind that all of this is based on companies that voluntarily disclose their tracking tools, and are members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a body formed to create greater transparency and protect our online privacy. Many of the companies tracking us are not members of NAI and do not disclose their tracking tools, only the big and reputable companies do.

List of sites to Opt-Out:


Privacy Choice: the website offering FREE software tool that allows you to see who is tracking you on each site you visit: http://www.privacychoice.org/trackerwatcher/download

Friday, October 16, 2009

Splendid Open Office-ism

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
Robert Frost


The last time I sat in something that resembled and open office plan but with cubicles, I had an ashtray stacked full of cigarette butts next to me, plastic coffee cups spilling over the side of my wastebasket, a fully stocked bar in my desk, and had to share my desktop computer with the person sitting next to me. Suffice it to say it’s been a long time. In fact, over the years, I have grown so unused to the idea of sharing my work space that my primary reason for choosing the last two places of employment was based on this criterion alone. Yes, I actually turned down jobs at companies that proudly boasted of their open office plans and instead chose agencies that had the old school, civilized, quiet, private and individually allocated office space, with a door. And this is where I have been hiding for the last fourteen years of my career. Now, back from a year long sabbatical, I find that not only are all the job offers I am getting from open office style companies, but even my previous employer, the last bastion of old school advertising has decided to go the open office route…I have nowhere to hide. So I took a deep breath, accepted a job offer and will now have to face the inevitability of an open office after years of carefully and deftly avoiding it.

Most people feel some sense of trepidation when starting a new job because they won’t know anyone, have no established track record, or because they will have to prove themselves afresh to a new boss and group of people. These are all good reasons to feel some healthy sense of fear on your first day at your new job. I found myself worrying about none of these things, but did feel like I was about to be tested like I have not been in a long time. Not because I was changing roles and doing something completely different from my core experience and something well outside my comfort zone, in a place where the average employee age is around twenty-four years or that I was about to face a huge learning curve in a very short period of time. Nope. My only fear was that I was going to have to sit in an open space where I was going to have to share my personal work space with other persons. Share my thinking space with other thinkers, my eating space with other eaters – this was my one and only concern.

First day at work, I admit find that I love the wide-open space, the floor to ceiling windows, the light filled rooms and the glass door conference rooms; even though I am unable to get any work done during the day. However, as my first week progressed it began to dawn on me that the open office might have a number of amazing bi-products that are rarely ever mentioned when people wax eloquent about all the positive aspects. The following, in no order of preference or importance, is the list of three positive things that might one day be attributed largely to the consequence of working in an open office; which some might argue will make up for all that loss of productivity.

The first that comes to mind is the effect this style of office will potentially have in reducing the obesity rate, while simultaneously increasing dining etiquette. Since the vast majority of people in our generation no longer have the time to sit and eat in the company cafeteria or go out for a leisurely lunch anymore, we are all forced to eat at our desks. Which in an open plan also means that we have to be mindful of the fact that not only are we are eating in the open, but also openly in a space filled with our co-workers. No longer does one have the luxury of quietly shutting the office door, in order to loudly chew one’s food, or eat while gawking open-mouthed at the latest breaking celebrity gossip on TMZ. One has to be on one’s best behavior and put one's best table foot forward or risk having to bear the brunt of our shortcomings being known, publicly. And with cell phone video recorders and other such devices at arm’s length, the word publicly also has all sorts of new and global connotations. As if this is not a big enough reason to applaud the open office, there is a greater one yet. We are now forced to be more conscious of what we are seen putting into our mouths and therefore into our bodies, now that it is in plain sight of virtually everyone in the office.

Every day I notice people hesitate to pick up that slice of pizza or cheeseburger in the cafeteria. I can see them think about what their office mates will make of their junk food addiction or say about them behind their backs. It seems to be giving people pause where they once used to just dive hand first into the fried food bar every day, devoid of guilt and freely exercising their right to choose. So, while we can all mourn the loss of this precious freedom and kick and scream about it, we should not underestimate or overlook the long-term benefits that come with the loss of one’s ability to make one’s own dietary choices – a less free but healthier you.

The second benefit, also greatly overlooked in my opinion, has to do with the positive impact it is going to have on the environment. All because office printers are no longer surreptitiously tucked away in some dark corner of some dark hard to find room. Instead, they are proudly placed in wide-open spaces, in full view of a large number of prying eyes. All of whom are just waiting to out those people who feel compelled to print every email they receive, every internet article they want to read, and especially those perennial printers who send hundreds of pages to the printer, and then rarely ever come to collect them. Yes, all you wasters and tree killers out there beware, for your paper wasting days and ways are numbered. Additionally, the rain forest also benefits from a massive reduction in the number of Post-its used (sorry, 3M but your lead product’s days are also numbered). We no longer need to rely on these little bits of paper, to leave non-phone related messages for people. In part because during the last round of cost-cutting most companies got rid of all their secretaries, assistants and support staff, considering them non-essential. And partly because there is a now a new way to deliver these messages.

Allow me to demonstrate by example how this plays out in an open office setting, based on my personal experience. The other day a person stopped by to see my cube-mate, who happened not to be at his desk. Of course, I had the option of pretending that I did not notice what transpired, but that takes some skill and practice in an open environment, and one that I have yet to master. And this visitor made it even harder, since they decided to mutter loudly (and supposedly) to themselves, “Oh, Joe Bloe is not here.” Now, even though I had my back to this person I could not help but hear them muttering, which naturally made me turn and look for just a split second. That split second was all it took for this visitor to make rapid eye contact with me and then proceed to make me feel guilty for potentially trying to ignore their presence and dilemma.

So what option did I have now, other than doing the polite thing and offering to take a message for my missing cube-mate? I admit that this, even if the correct thing to do, was terribly distracting and a led to losses of productivity, as it happened six times that day alone (approximately six minutes of productivity lost). However, I did take consolation in the knowledge, as I am sure will you that I had personally contributed to six post-it notes not being used in the world that day. Which led me to quickly calculate that if I were to take three messages a day, minus time lost for weekends, public holidays, vacation and sick days; I would be able to save one tree every three years. Which no doubt makes up for the six months of lost productivity during this same time period.

The third benefit society will gain from this wonderful new open world is the eradication of those time wasting and productivity sucking gatherings at the famed water cooler. Gone forever are those days when you and your co-workers mingled, while gaining and dispensing hot office gossip along with cold filtered water. It’s hard to gather when your boss is not only potentially watching, but quite possibly within earshot. In fact, we are also no longer encouraged to walk over to one another’s desk like we used to, in order to follow up on something or just catch up on your colleague's last weekend trip away or their kid’s third birthday party; we are asked to IM (Instant Message) directly from our computer now. We no longer need to leave our seats in order to break bread while getting work done. Along with the loss of these old office rituals we will also see the office gossip, that one person in every office who always has the juiciest bits of information on everyone, soon become extinct. It’s hard for gossips to survive when there is nowhere to gossip and nobody to share it with.

Another thing that is frowned upon is people making or taking personal calls at their desk. We are encouraged to leave our desks and walk over to a small private room or an empty conference room to have this conversation. Given that there are only two such phone rooms and up to one hundred people on each office floor, and most people will not take up a whole conference room (with glass doors) to have a personal conversation, it effectively prevents us from having any type of remotely personal conversation during the day, or to face the risk of being overheard by your immediate neighbors and chastised by your superiors.

Hooray for efficiency, technology and a complete loss of productivity - I am sure our Master Houyhnhnm will be proud!