Despite continued sensationalistic reporting on cookies, behavioral profiling and lack of online privacy, I've long held the belief that my online behavior affords me far more privacy than my offline behavior. It is in this context that I took interest to the recent Businessweek article "Digital Snoops Have Nothing on Joe Salesclerk", which contrasts Web-based behavioral profiling with offline behavioral profiling. The punch line? Yes computers are tracking your online behavior, but in terms of surveillance sophistication you can't beat a good salesperson at a brick-and-mortar store.
Clearly, online behavior is valuable data -- which many companies (such as my own) is analyzing.
We may be just browsing or comparison shopping online, but our Web wanderings paint a picture of who we are, what we desire, where we go. In all, we create a vast laboratory of human behavior for the data miners at the e-merchants, portals, and search engines.
However, this "behavioral data mining" is unavoidable, offline or online. Every purchase we make via credit/debit card, every building we enter, everyone we talk to over the phone, even our homes and the streets we drive down -- are recorded in some way, increasingly so. And there are companies that aggregate/store all this data in a way that's personally identifiable. In many ways, our offline behavior is far more open and publicly available than our online behavior. (It's amazing to me why people get so upset over browser cookies.)
Computers can search for correlations between the Web pages we look at, the articles we read, the ads we click, even the size of our e-mail communities and our instant-chat habits. This may feel intrusive, but remember: All of this observation and analysis is done by machines. Most of these analysts—the people I call the numerati—recognize us only as patterns. Their computers see us as dots in a universe of millions. [edited for brevity]
Now compare that with offline "behavioral profiling", in stores and neighborhoods.
Walk through the holly-bedecked doorways, and store owners immediately note your race, your clothes, the way you walk. Maybe they can see your car out the window. Within seconds and without conscious thought, most will draw conclusions about your social status, your income, maybe even your religion, drinking habits, and sexual orientation. (This is a level of analysis eons beyond the power of the brainiest computers.) These insightful humans, their brains busily linking you to other people they have known, heard of, read about, or even smelled, will then guide you toward the kitchen appliances, books, or tools they suspect you'll like. This attention, which on the Web would be called "targeting," is known in the physical marketplace as the "personal touch."
What do you think? Do you feel more anonymous online than offline, or are you much more concerned about your privacy online in comparison?