In the mix

March 10th, 2010 by Grace Meng

1) We’ve wondered in the past, why don’t targeted advertising companies just ask you to opt-in to be tracked?  When I first heard about it, I thought this newish website,, described on NPR, was doing something like that.  You actively register a credit card with the site and it shares ALL your transactions with your friends.  Except NPR reports the company was rather vague about how the information gets to marketing companies.  And what exactly are they offering anyway, other than the opportunity to broadcast, “I am what I buy”?  The only news being broadcast seem to be about people’s Netflix and iTunes buying tendencies.  Services like and and Patients Like Me are also using customers’ data to make money, but they’re offering a real, identifiable service in return.

2) Google explains why it needs your data to provide a better service.

Search data is mined to “learn from the good guys,” in Google’s parlance, by watching how users correct their own spelling mistakes, how they write in their native language, and what sites they visit after searches. That information has been crucial to Google’s famously algorithm-driven approach to problems like spell check, machine language translation, and improving its main search engine. Without the algorithms, Google Translate wouldn’t be able to support less-used languages like Catalan and Welsh.

Data is also mined to watch how the “bad guys” run link farms and other Web irritants so that Google can takecountermeasures.

This is an argument I’m really glad to hear.  It doesn’t make the issue of privacy go away, but I’d love to see privacy advocates and Google talk honestly and thoughtfully about what Google does with the data, how important that is to making Google’s services useful, and what trade-offs people are willing to make when they ask Google to destroy the data.

3) Nat Torkington describes how open source principles could be applied for open data. We heartily agree that these principles could be useful for making data public and useful, though Mimi, who’s worked on open source projects, points out that open source production, with its standard processes, is something  that’s been worked out over decades.  Data management is still relatively in its infancy, so open-sourcing data management will definitely take some work.  Onward ho!

4) The Center for Democracy and Technology and EFF are thinking about privacy and Smart Grids, which monitor energy consumption so that consumers can better control their energy use.  I’m more enthusiastic than EFF about the “potentially beneficial” aspects of smart meters, but in any case, it’s interesting to see these two blog posts within two days of each other.  Energy consumption data, as well as health data, are going to be two huge areas of debate, because the benefits of large-scale data collection and analysis are obvious, even though detailed personal information is involved.

5) The Onion reports Google is apologizing for its privacy problems, directed to very specific people. Ha ha.

“Americans have every right to be angry at us,” Google spokesperson Janet Kemper told reporters. “Though perhaps Dale Gilbert should just take a few deep breaths and go sit in his car and relax, like they tell him to do at the anger management classes he attends over at St. Francis Church every Tuesday night.”

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