For Hyperlocal Marketers, Data Sweeps Are Part of Doing Business

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dataThere has been both praise and condemnation of the recently leaked NSA phone and Internet data sweeps. There is just as much puzzlement about what it all means. But there’s one indisputable fact among all the headlines, postings and tweets: marketers have been making the same kind of massive sweeps, many of them at the hyperlocal level. There’s nothing illegal about the sweeps, and, while they’re not widely publicized, they’re not super-secret.

It all started in the early years of the Internet with “cookies” that record computer usage based on key words and tags. But sweeps have escalated with the wider use of smartphones that provide an enormously important new kind of geo-local information, which is tracked through phone calls a user makes or apps.

Apple, for one example, has revised its privacy policy so it can sell geo-locations of its smartphone users to partners and licensees. This means that close to 400 million iPhone users worldwide can be tracked on a minute-to-minute basis as they move about. Most smartphone users make and receive calls and activate their apps within a relatively tight radius that is defined as hyperlocal — home, work and nearby shops, restaurants and other venues.

Four stops can produce an IDMarketers will be able to use this information from Apple to better predict where iPhone users are likely to go next as they move about during the day — and potentially be able to extend offers and other promotions based on this information. A far bigger, and worrisome, implication is that those mobility records could, if they fell into the hands of rogues, identify by name 95% of users. This could be determined through the tracking a smartphone user across as few as four locations within a given day (explanatory image from Nature magazine report is above at right).

Facebook is also steadily de-privatizing its billion-plus users. It took a big leap recently with its Graph Search, which opens accounts to non-Friends unless users tweak their privacy settings. And this week, Facebook announced that it was also making hashtagging available to users. The two moves mean that any of those users could become a “selector” – the kind of Internet target defined by ex-NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Marketers, of course, aren’t looking for terrorists, like the NSA; they’re looking for customers, especially new ones. But to find customers – especially those fitting prescribed categories — they need to sift through a lot of data. They’re not interested in potentially damning content, like former U.S. Rep. Weiner’s mis-tweeted photos of himself in his shorts. What marketers want is demographic or psychographic information that will help them assemble prospects for their products or services.

Some digital citizens are saying they want to decide how specific information about themselves shall be used, especially for monetization. But not only has the barn door been open too long – it’s not clear there is even a barn anymore. When Apple adopts a privacy policy where it can sell user information that could, with further analysis, reveal users by their name and address, when Facebook gives marketers relatively easy access to the accounts of its users, can any digital citizen reasonably claim, much less gain, autonomy in the quest for privacy?

I’m not saying we’re all Chicken Littles under a falling sky. In their pursuit of customers, marketers operate under many constraints dictated by good business and societal mores, not to mention various federal and state laws against criminal and civil misconduct. But the explosion of public data that continues right up to yesterday’s hashtag announcement by Facebook needs to be sorted out. Edward Snowden – traitor, hero or in-between – started the discussion a week ago. Now it’s up to society, government, business and individuals everywhere to advance the discussion to better and new policies and, where necessary, laws.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites that will present how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.