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Liz Wainger Headshot

Big Brother is Watching -- Do You Care?

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Many years ago, a comedian quipped that people will tell everything for a set of Samsonite luggage. Today that wit might amend his comment to say, people will gladly give away their most intimate data for an Internet coupon for a discounted latte.

Being an educated consumer today isn't just about knowing as much as we can about what we buy. It's also understanding what information is being collected about us, how it will might be aggregated with other information that different companies collect, and what ramifications might lurk down the road.

The idea that we provide information to marketers so they can incentivize use of their products and services is nothing new. What is new is the technology that makes it possible to better understand would-be and existing customers and tailor not only the offers, but the ways in which they are delivered. And while receiving offers I really want and filtering out what I don't sounds good, there is a cost.

At the very stimulating XPotomac2014 Conference in Washington last week, technology writer and former blogger-in-chief for Microsoft, Robert Scoble, talked about five forces -- mobile, social media, data, sensors, and location -- that let companies create more personalized and customized experiences based on observations of your behavior patterns.

Scoble says that along with Facebook and Google, enterprises from Wal-Mart to NFL teams are collecting all kinds of data about you with the promise of VIP-style treatment. Give us your info, they say, and we can return the favor by giving you exactly what you want. Technology is evolving rapidly to include sensors everywhere to better understand us all; wearable technologies promise even greater potential with many exciting possibilities.

The flip side, however, is that we are constantly under surveillance. We know about the cameras on mass transit, in stores, at the ATM, and at busy intersections. But are we fully conscious of the impact of location devices? Electronics from smart phones to tollgate transponders can pinpoint where we are at all times. Fitness trackers like FitBits measure -- and store -- our exercise, food intake, heart rate, and calorie expenditures. But if you wear them 24/7, wouldn't an observer be able to note every time you have marital relations (that accelerated heart rate at 1 am)? Onboard computers in our cars give us great feedback about that traffic jam dead ahead, but aren't they also picking up info about the huge segments of our lives that are spent in cars? And does no one have any concerns about advances like Google Glass, that don't just look outward, but track retina movements to determine even our innermost patterns of brain activity?

Scoble says giving away his information helps him win in the game of life. He cites being on a plane that encountered mechanical trouble. Because of TripIt, which he says monitors his emails, he learned before any other passenger that the plane would not take of and he had first crack at links to other flights for booking. Letting TripIt into his emails enabled him to get home that night, while some 200 other passengers did not. True, it's a short-term victory. But is giving up so much information a good thing over the long haul?

In the late 1970s as a student of Russian language and literature, I lived in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. Before we left, organizers of the semester abroad program warned us that our dorm rooms were likely bugged and that our Soviet roommates were there not just for language practice, but to keep tabs on us. We had to watch our words and actions carefully to make sure that Russian friends wouldn't be harmed by their association with foreigners. The constant eyes on us were exhausting and oppressive.

In 2014 in America, we are under even more intrusive surveillance -- for which we volunteered. There are, as Scoble notes, great benefits. But there is a dark side to big corporations, the government and other big data collectors knowing who our friends are, where and when we hang out with them, the books we read, the games we play, the jobs we want, the medical conditions we fear, and so on.

As a mentor of mine says, technology by itself is amoral. It's what we do with it and how it is used that reflects the human intent. We aren't going to put the genie back in the bottle, but as consumers of technology, we need to be informed and understand all the ramifications, positive and negative, of data sharing. Do we trust those who now possess this data to always act in our best interests? And if we don't, what do we do about it?

Before you click "yes" to accept the terms and get your coupon, make sure you understand just what you are giving away.

 
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