Forget data transparency: options grow for letting you hide your data

privacy

There’s no doubt it’s a data driven world. But increasing concerns about companies’ collection and uses of personal internet user data have given rise to a few solutions.

One is a personal data locker where users would be able to store their own information and grant companies limited access, rather than abide by companies’ privacy policies. Some people have even talked about compelling companies to disclose the data they keep on consumers, even though it might be hard to understand and use.

But others are simply opting out of the data revolution.

Stopping tracking in its tracks

One CEO has in mind an approach that comes from the opposite direction. Rather than ask companies to disclose more, Bill Kerrigan, the chief executive of Abine, believes internet surfers should avoid letting companies detect their activity in the first place; or at least try to limit the amount of new data companies can gather to tie with existing information about end users.

Abine introduced its browser extension for blocking online tracking in February 2012. The DoNotTrackMe extension is free, although the company charges for another service: the (temporary) removal of information from popular online data collectors such as Spokeo and ZabaSearch. And later this year, Kerrigan said, Abine will release a service for consumers to get proxy email addresses and phone numbers for plugging into websites that demand that information.

Besides Abine’s DoNotTrackMe feature, there are other options for preventing tracking. Free privacy and security software from AVG includes the option, for example. There’s also PrivacyChoice’s free Privacyfix web application, which displays the sites that have installed cookies on a computer for tracking activity and the data being shared through Facebook, Google and LinkedIn. Internet Explorer 10 was released last year with the do-not-track option in place by default, putting Microsoft on the side of privacy advocates, not advertisers.

The trouble is, if companies can’t see consumer demographics or preferences, websites might not be able to delight customers with responsive features. For example, without location information, Google Now would be considerably less powerful. At a recent event in San Francisco, Hilary Mason, the chief scientist at bit.ly, raved about Google Now. “For the first time (a product) takes everything (Google) knows about me and actually gives me something I want,” she said.

Similarly, at GigaOM’s Structure:Data conference in New York last month, executives at other companies that require location and other personal information from users agreed that users are willing to sacrifice personal information if they like what they can get in return.

Bringing data back

Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon.com and now a consultant and Stanford University lecturer, is in the habit of asking executives what they could do to impress their customers by using data. He also tends to raise the question of how much data, if any, companies should share with its customers.

For example, should an airline grant access to a recording of his or her most recent phone call to the airline? He raised the question to David Cush, president and CEO of Virgin America, at a 2011 conference on big data. (A video shows what happened; fast forward to 5:40.)

The problem with pushing for data disclosure on a large scale is it will take a lot of pushing from consumer groups, and opt-in from one company at a time could take many years. Legislation might not be ideal, either, as people could just go to different countries if they don’t like the policies governments set in place.

For now, both data ownership and data masking have drawbacks. But give this some time. As more companies dream up more ways to target consumers, and consumers become more weary of being tracked and targeted, better solutions to the privacy problem are likely to pop up in response.

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