Posts Tagged ‘AOL’

Who cares about Privacy: Why search queries in America trump sexual history in Africa.

Wednesday, December 6th, 2006

A couple of weeks ago I reported on Sam Clark’s presentation about interesting social science data collection efforts, in particular, research being done in the area of AIDS/HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa…a data collection project that was startling both for how intimate the survey questions were and for the cursory attention paid to privacy matters.

A week later, I attempted to give various rationales for why privacy did not figure prominently in Clark’s presentation. The sheer urgency of the AIDS epidemic, the relative powerlessness of the survey subjects and the relative irrelevance of databases, the internet and modern digital life as we know it to much of Africa seemed to me to be the three most powerful reasons.

So now I’d like to contrast that with the media frenzy of late in the First World over AOL’s unfortunate bungling that led to an unqualified release of user query data to the public.

So in the context of this DSS work in Africa, do the AOL users have a right to be outraged? If there was a leak of INDEPTH user data, would the U.S. media be condemning INDEPTH? or would they not care because the general African’s privacy is too far removed from our reality? Or maybe INDEPTH survey respondents are disenfranchised at this point?

What if there was an unfortunate bungling of personal information at INDEPTH? Who cares if we know AOL user 34653 is looking for a good cross-dressing cruise for couples and idolizes Cher, Castro and Trent Lott in a single breath. It’s trivial in comparison to Name, HIV status, # and type of sex partners in the last 6 months, # of times you’ve had unprotected sex in the last 6 months and with who.

What if an embattled, desperate government with a touch of psychosis decided that this data was handy for carrying out a genocidal “solution” to the AIDS epidemic?

I can’t help feeling that the fact that “the [AOL] data was leaked” is besides the point.

Yes it was careless, wrong, and inconsiderate. But in the end, is that really why people are so unhappy?

I think people are unhappy about the AOL data release because it was a surprise. People simply didn’t realize how much of their life was being captured, recorded and analyzed by search engines. Even with our modern-day sophistication, we are just as naive about the digital fingerprints we leave everywhere as the respondents are about the surveys they answer. In some ways you could say the respondents in INDEPTH’s DSS were more aware. They were painfully aware that their lives were being examined, and not only that, they knew and understood the goals of the organization that was collecting that information.

For AOL users, it was only after the data release that people started to realize that as an individual, you are laying bare your psyche: contemplations of suicide, murder, sexual hang-ups, personal insecurities, etc…so that the folks at AOL (and other search engines) can sell you better targeted advertising and make more money. Contrast that with what social scientists are trying to accomplish in sub-Saharan Africa and you start to feel like a cheap date.

What’s unfortunate is that the reason why the AOL data became compromised was because AOL was following others in the industry trying to “do good” by making their data available to academic researchers who might try to do something more with the data than figure out advertising schemes.

The takeaway here is that there is no straightforward, one-size-fits-most policy when it comes to privacy. It’s not about how much privacy is enough privacy. It’s not about whether people should share data or not share data. It’s clear that there are myriad circumstances that call for different levels of care on the part of the people collecting data and provoke different responses on the part of the people sharing information. Like most things having to do with human beings and society, privacy is context-sensitive and grand sweeping EULAs and privacy policies are insufficient, if not downright ridiculous for capturing how we should approach the issue, as an industry and as a society.

Now that AOL knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that their users can’t seem to be able to extrapolate from their generic, vague privacy policy, the natural consequences of using the AOL search service, they need to find a way to make the search experience itself clearly communicate to the user the data collection that is happening behind the scenes. The INDEPTH survey respondents wouldn’t be surprised to see themselves in a report on the sexual history of people who are HIV+ or living with AIDS in Sub-Saharan African. They’re answering a survey, what else would they expect?

Similarly, AOL users shouldn’t be surprised that someone is keeping track of what they search for, what sites they visit, for how long and how often.* Attaining this kind of mutual understanding with your users is much trickier and has yet to be done successfully. After all, AOL’s users don’t think of themselves as answering a survey when they conduct a search or visit a website. But as far as the researchers at AOL are concerned, that’s exactly what they’re doing,

*That being said, everyone should be surprised and outraged if any of this data is released without being properly anonymized. Whether or not everyone has the wherewithal and press connections to express their indignation and anger is another issue for another blog entry.


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