(blogs let others gawk)

February 8, 2009

Case in point related to privacy and persistence topics

Since I was just talking about this, I thought it relevant to call out a couple of recent stories that made the rounds in January.

First on the Privacy side, there is news that American Express is now evaluating the stores you shop at and changing your credit limit and/or interest rate based on where you shop. Here’s the story about a person who was impacted by this following what he believes was a single trip to Walmart using his AmEx card. This is truly the ugly side of data mining.

Not to alarm you (although you should not only be alarmed but up in arms) but, folks this is just a taste of what’s to come.

Another interesting story that drifted through the aether to my attention courtesy of BoingBoing is directly related to the idea of persistence biting people in the ass.

Many years ago when just about every Windows user was using Napster to download and share music on the Internet, combined with most new PCs shipping with the MP3 Player software, Music Match Jukebox (both programs are now defunct). Many users would configure both Music Match and Napster to share the same folder for audio files. Then at some point they might use the built in “record from microphone” feature of Music Match to make up their songs, audio diaries, rants, you name it. The default file name for these recordings was “Mic in Track”.

A friend of mine who was playing with social disruption and marketing to promote his own music on Napster via a process he called “Culture Jamming” discovered something interesting. Careless (and some not so careless) users had left thousands of Mic in Track audio files on their PCs for anyone to download. Mark talked about this on his site (even putting up a couple of his favorites to download) at the time and it became a rich source of oddness for those with the patience to bother downloading the tracks. This was not a passive activity when you consider that in the mid nineties the majority of the Internet was still connected via 28.8 to 56k speed modems.

Which brings me to the contemporary story that made the rounds last month. Apparently one of the people out there (David Dixon) who learned of the Mic in Track phenomenon took it upon himself to download all of the files he could find. What makes this story relevant to the persistence angle is that David has published dozens of these Mic in Track files on his website.

Here we are now ten years later and for some poor souls that audio track of thier youthful exuberance (or disturbing screed) that was carelessly recorded on their computer for giggles may have committed their act to the ages. You can read a story about David on the LAWeekly site. Or more directly, David’s site holds dozens of his favorite tracks available for download. He has even released a compilation of greatest hits.

Granted there is probably a copyright issue here. Even though these people who recorded these tracks carelessly left them exposed for download, technically they still own the copyright to their creations. Unless David secured their permissions to reproduce their audio recording, I would say he probably doesn’t have any standing to be redistributing these tracks.

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January 15, 2009

Persona = Brand

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , , — Bryan @ 12:24 am

So now that I’ve introduced you to thinking about Brand You or as we’ve been calling it, your persona, let’s think about what I’ve said and consider how this applies to a businesses.

Haven’t you noticed? Companies have personalities. Companies go to great lengths through advertising and marketing to establish a brand identity (persona) knowing that more often than not you’re going to buy something from either someone you identify with, someone you know or someone you trust. When companies inundate you with messaging they are trying to establish this relationship on a pseudo subconscious level so that you’ll gravitate to their product when presented with a comparable set of options.

Here is an easy thought exercise for you the next time the TV is on. Actually watch the commercials. Based on time of day, day of week and commercial content you can almost always identify who that company thinks is watching the show that you are watching. In theory the persona they are attempting to identify with is supposed to ultimately be you. So that either you or someone you influence will buy the item (eg, kids and toys).

Now a more challenging one. Go to your cupboard or refrigerator and look at what you have in there. Ask your self “why did I first buy this <fill in the blank>?”. Inevitably for alot of people there will be something that falls under the “that’s what my mom bought me as a kid and it’s my favorite” category. Think about that…

Companies have two ways to bring you in as a customer. Positive referral from someone you have an relationship with or by creating a relationship via marketing so that, as I said above, when confronted between product A or B you go with what you know. All they have to do is get you to buy once and if you have a satisfying experience on your first try you may never try the other products. That’s one battle down in the war for your brand loyalty.

One extension of building brand loyalty is through lifestyle associations. Take for example the soft drink/soda business: Mountain Dew = extreme sports, Sprite = hip hop, Pepsi = young and young at heart, Coca-Cola = happy people, or Fresca = dieters. Companies play this card as one more relationship angle based on your personal identity with the hope that if you want to identify with your crowd you’ll buy their product. Sprite used this masterfully several years ago when they went after the Urban/Hip-Hop crowd or Mountain Dew with the extreme sports crowd.

Now maybe you can understand why companies go to great lengths to protect and promote their identity/persona/brand image. Or why when a company’s image is so badly damaged they change their name and logo and try to reinvent themselves. Good or bad, sometimes it works.

Worldcom -> MCI -> Verizon

THQ -> Atari

Enron -> CrossCountry

Philip Morris -> Altria

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January 7, 2009


Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 9:49 pm

This all brings us to my last point…

Don’t ever assume that anything you express on the Internet is private. Be it e-mail, web forums, IP based phone calls, anything. As the world becomes more connected and employers, governments and others feel the need to monitor you as a risk (warranted or not), you will have less privacy in your life. In fact you have less privacy now than you could ever possibly suspect. Consider the little intrusions such as how banks now monitor your Debit/Credit card activity with automated systems that do predictive analysis of your spending behavior and if something goes outside the prediction curve your card will be blocked or you will get a phone call from a CSR (phone rep) to verify that it really is you buying a new high-end TV on your debit card mid pay cycle. This is all done in order to reduce fraud and protect your money… but none-the-less, we are all subject to it already.

And worse yet, if there is money to made from that data, it is often already being sold to other companies who cross reference it with other data to figure out the optimal time to send you promotional offers in the mail. You may think I’m being cynical but this type activity is old news. Here is a good resource site to start you off on the subject, specifically this document “Customer Acquisition and Data Mining“. Here’s a quote:

“More complicated overlays are also possible. Customers can be matched against purchase, response, and other detailed data that the data vendors collect and refine. This data comes from a variety of sources including retailers, state and local governments, and the customers themselves. If you are mailing out a car accessories catalog, it might be useful to overlay information (make, model, year) about any known cars that people on the prospect list might have registered with their department of motor vehicles.”

Also, as I mentioned previously MySpace, LinkedIn, FaceBook and others allow third parties to review your account data and private, protected pages all the time without any kind of legal overview. You agreed to it when you (often carelessly) pressed the “I agree” button when you created your account. In fact just about every online service you’ve ever signed up with probably has a clause in the EULA/Terms & Conditions about sharing your personal information which you agreed to when you checked that box and hit submit.

Beyond that, you should always remember that everything you do on the Internet or an Intranet is recorded in some manner. Take for instance the simple (and default) behavior of a web server recording a log of every file it delivers and the IP address of every computer that the file was delivered to. It is how the owner of that log file handles the data that they store that ultimately impacts your privacy, hence some of the rules that have been fiercely debated across Europe regarding this very subject. Just this last October (2008) yet another ruling occurred in Germany indicating that an IP address is not personal data. I’m sure next month it will change again.

Additionally, new ways are always being invented to index and parse the web. It’s only a matter of time before either archive.org or some other company working with them develops a way to perform web searches across their database. Then that long gone web site where you thoroughly embarrassed yourself may come back to life and become discoverable again some day in the future.

In regards to modern technology, the idea of Privacy is nothing more than a quaint religion at this point in history and to bring this all full circle to the persona issue (now that I’ve completely scared you to death in the process) remember this… if your doing something online that you don’t want the whole world to know about, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

…sounds like advice from Grandma…

[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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December 31, 2008

You can’t take it back…

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 7:00 am

This isn’t meant to scare you. Posting things on the Internet isn’t really a big deal as long as you’re not a dork about it. Just use some common sense and be civil with people. The Golden Rule is always good way to go when in doubt.

Granted the things you say on a corporate Intranet aren’t likely to linger in cyberspace forever, but even there you should always adhere to your companies Code of Conduct or you’re like to find yourself under disciplinary action at best, out of a job or worse.

A scary thing though (and this is where persona plays into things) is that some companies now evaluate potential new hires based on the results of what can be found about someone in an Internet search. And just because you marked your MySpace or Facebook profile as private is really not relevant because there are agencies that have contract agreements with these sites that allow your prospective university or employer to access all of your content. As companies get more savvy to this (unless something happens to the contrary) expect even more privacy violations, and more digging. In reality, all it takes is a credit card number and your first and last name to dig up more information on you than you could ever think possible.

But Web pages aside, you should always be aware that whatever you write in a public space is likely to resurface at some point in time. Whether or not people care is a whole other matter. Just because you posted some comment to some forum or other that might be embarrassing ten years ago, don’t think it can’t come back to haunt you.

Personally, I’ve always tried to be reasonable when I’m online. I’m sure there are a couple of places where you can find me engaged in some argument about something or other (I think there is one out there where I have an argument over some 3-D gaming technology). But, I think the best surprise example from my own life has to be this item which is now recorded for all posterity on Google Groups.

It’s nothing embarrassing, but here’s the history. In 1993 when UUCP (News groups), IRC (internet chat), FTP repositories (file sharing) and Gopher (pre-WWW hypertext) where still the predominant communication systems on the Internet, I was contributing to some of the early video game related newsgroups through a local Columbus, Ohio based BBS system called BlueMoon BBS. This BBS was a UUCP node which means that it was connected to the Internet newsgroups. I only posted a dozen or so times through this site and had completely forgotten about it until one day when Google announced that they had located backup tapes of all Internet Newsgroup posts going back to 1981 and were now going to put them online in a searchable format.

That was pretty cool. From there, me and several thousand people immediately started searching for our old posts to see how far back we could locate ourselves. I had never in my wildest dreames imagined this stuff would end up on the web, but there it was. Good thing I wasn’t a newsgroup troll.

[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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December 24, 2008

Sharp dressed man

Filed under: General,Perspective — Tags: , , , — Bryan @ 9:46 am

In the on-line world something amazing happened. Anonymity.

In actuality, true anonymity on the Internet is a rare commodity. Just because you created a MySpace page with the username PuppyHunter342 and posted a photo of your neighbor’s cat on your profile, doesn’t mean someone can’t figure out who you are with enough resources. But just like the plastic lock on a file cabinet, it’s enough to keep the passing acquaintance from finding out.

In practice though many researchers have found that the key problem this has created (in part) is that people feel more liberated to show their at home self in public, or in many cases project their internal voice out into their communications much like a free writing exercise. You don’t know me, I don’t know you and in fact I may not even exist beyond the words you’re reading on this page, so the sense of social repercussions never even comes into play if you decide to write a rant in the comments. At worst, in some peoples minds, they’re simply writing a comment to someone. Not generating yet one more piece of electronic documentation for forming their online identity.

Beyond that, I personally think this may happen because most people interact on the Internet from home on in the privacy of their office space where they are conversing or thinking with their family/internal tone and then using that same voice as they type. This probably wasn’t the best thing to happen.

People like to categorize things as I mentioned at the start of this series. You’re going to be categorized, like it not, so why handicap yourself out of the gate. This is a hard lesson that most people only understand much too late when it comes to living an on-line life (oh nooes, that Facebook photo of you puking from a drunken stupor at that party may come back to haunt you some day).

When you think about it, while this perceived anonymity is a double edged sword it also presents humanity with an amazing gift. The ability to transcend preconceived stereotypes… Well… as long as you’re thoughtful of what you write and where you write it. But even then other people will still try to stereotype you (from casual observation, to academic review).

The perfect example of this self definition would be the growing realm of Virtual Worlds. You can be tall, short, male, female, black, white, green or purple. You can be an extremely unpopular person in the real world, but in a virtual world you can be that Sharp Dressed Man who is eloquent and has all the right connections. Nobody ever has to know unless you tell them.

Most people don’t think about all of this when the venture out to the wide world of the Internet but it’s even more important now than ever to be aware of this issue because of my next point…


[read the other parts of this series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

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