Privacy Or Individuality?

According to reports from last week's Wall Street Journal, Facebook plans to deliver advertising that's targeted to users' personal profiles. Targeting parameters will include "not only... age, gender and location," the Journal reports, "but also... details such as favorite activities and preferred music" -- as well as information about users' friends.

Have no doubt; the privacy-minded will rebel.

That's not to say that these ads will encroach on users' privacy. The targeting data will primarily -- or even entirely -- be drawn from information that the Facebook user has volunteered within his or her profile.

Nor are Facebookers a particularly privacy-concerned bunch. According to Digital security firm Sophos, 41% of Facebook users readily give away sensitive information to strangers.

So why will the Facebook ads touch a nerve? Because privacy concerns in our culture often aren't concerns over private data. They're concerns over who has control over our identities. And if there's any digital application that we use to define who we are, it's our social networking profiles.



But for that same reason, online consumers will demand personally targeted experiences of all kinds -- including personally targeted ads in Facebook -- sooner than you think.

To understand what I mean, consider how our society addresses privacy issues within search.

The search scandals. The story that most quickly comes to mind when you talk about data privacy is last summer's leak of 650,000 AOL searchers' queries. The poster child for that story was Thelma Arnold, a woman whom The New York Timestracked down through her leaked searches.

Ms. Arnold's searches didn't seem particularly compromising -- the most embarrassing search may have been for "womens underwear." If the press wanted to focus on compromising searches, it could have focused on AOL User # 67236, whose searches -- cited in Slate --included "you're pregnant he doesn't want the baby," "abortion clinics charlotte nc," and "can christians be forgiven for abortion."

Why was Thelma Arnold, and not User # 67236, the face of the AOL data leak? There are many reasons, but I think that one is that the concern here wasn't really a leak of private information. The concern was over what private data means for how we control our own identities. And for exploring that issue, Thelma Arnold -- whose identity was pinpointed through the search data -- was the better candidate.

A similar point can be made about the New York Timescoverage of Mary Kalin-Casey, who was shocked to find a picture of her cat sitting in her window on Google Street View.

"The next step might be seeing books on my shelf," an angry Kalin-Casey was quoted as saying in the Times.

Again, the issue is that, if Google gets really aggressive, it could draw a neat picture of who you are: it could reveal the books you keep on your shelf.

It's only in a near-aside that the Times referenced any direct harm that could come from a Google privacy violation, commenting that Kalin-Casey's "husband...added, 'It's like peeping.'" The concern isn't harm or even privacy. The concern is identity.

What's a concern? I think the fear around identity is also one reason why behaviorally based search results have caused such a stir.

After all, all search data is potentially sensitive information. If you're a doctor, you wouldn't want word to leak that you've searched for "malpractice defense lawyer." If you're applying for a loan, you wouldn't want the world to find out that you've searched for "bad credit score help." Anything you search for can be used against you -- if it gets in the wrong hands.

But while behaviorally targeted search results are the focus of heavy opposition, search itself hasn't really come under fire.

There are many good reasons why that's so. But it seems to me that part of the reason is that behavioral targeting is made possible by building multiple searches into a user profile. It's hit a cultural nerve in a way that most of search hasn't, because only behaviorally targeted search results require looking into searchers' identities.

The changing identity. Even as we're increasingly concerned with our identities, we also view our online lives as extensions of who we are -- which is why social networks like Facebook are so popular to begin with. And since each of us want something different from our lives, it's only natural that we'll want more personalization in our online experiences, whether that's personalized content or personalized ads.

Which is why we're on the threshold of two consumer trends with regard to personalized content and advertising. One will be an increased demand for personalized media. Another will be an increased demand that we, in the media business, be painstakingly careful in how we protect personalized data.

Some will see these demands as divergent. I see them as two sides of one coin, and the dual responsibilities that all of us in online advertising face over the coming years.

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