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Mr. 'Catch Me If You Can' talks online privacy

  • Vast amounts of information gathered online and offline
  • Marketers, advertisers have tools -- but so do you
Mr. 'Catch Me If You Can' talks online privacy
Frank Abagnale

Editor's note: Frank Abagnale is a security expert based in Washington, DC, specializing in forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. He has been associated with the FBI for over 35 years and has advised hundreds of financial institutions and corporations around the world. His journey from confidence man to fraud prevention expert was chronicled in the film "Catch Me If You Can," which is based on Mr. Abagnale's book.

Digital Identity. Online Privacy. Big Data. These are important terms in one of the biggest conversations taking place today -- how to protect people’s personal information in the digital world. Given my experience and expertise in the area, I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts on today’s situation.
There are many places and ways that personal information is collected. While much of the focus is on the Web, plenty of data is being gathered offline. If you have a store loyalty card, every item you purchase is cataloged to build a profile of you. Even without loyalty cards, every swipe of your credit card sheds light on who you are, what you purchase and what you might buy in the future – hence the suspiciously relevant coupons that are handed at checkout.
Online, the process is less apparent – and the benefits less obvious. Cookies allow websites to track you as you make your way around the web. This allows them to amass huge volumes of data about you and your behavior. Why? So they can sell you to advertisers!
It’s important to note that the “you” being sold isn’t you as an individual, but rather an anonymous member of what advertisers like to call “audiences.” Audiences are big groups of people with common characteristics -- age, income, marital status, gender, interests, etc.
To an advertiser, knowing they’re reaching Frank Abagnale is less valuable than knowing they’re reaching 10,000 men between the ages of 55 and 65 living in the greater Washington, D.C., area with an interest in security issues.
Giant databases, programs for pulling information from multiple databases and tools for analyzing all that information are the tools of the trade for modern marketers and advertisers. They want to be able to reach you with the messages they think you’ll respond to in exactly the right time and place.
For many people, there’s something creepy about having their personal behavior collected, analyzed, sliced and diced; and that’s exactly what happens in the world of Big Data. So what’s out there to keep you safe, to protect your data and to insulate you from this whole process if that’s what you want?
Almost all websites, mobile apps and social networks disclose their privacy policies and terms of use. Unfortunately these are usually so cryptic that only a lawyer could decipher them. The Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on companies that have violated their terms of service. We saw it with Google Buzz and with Facebook, and just this week Myspace was charged with breaching its promise not to share user information. We’re also starting to see the market take steps to police itself.
For example, tools like Do Not Track (DNT) in the Firefox browser allow people to exercise more control over whether they’re followed online; options like the “Incognito” mode in Google’s Chrome browser let people surf the Web without amassing a slew of cookies and new “pro-privacy” tracking tools from online fraud detection companies allow marketers to gather data while respecting DNT and taking a much less intrusive approach.
The situation around identity, online privacy and marketing can be confusing and concerning for people. Remember, your privacy is important both online AND offline. The data being collected is meant to be anonymous and is intended to increase the relevancy of online advertising (which supports the web we’ve all come to rely on.) Rest assured, the FTC is keeping an eye on the companies that collect and use your data and the industry itself is taking steps to remedy the issue.

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