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When Anonymous Is Synonymous With You

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Today, Michelle tackles online profiles and privacy.]

By R. Michelle Green

I recently wrote a blog post about information available from your smartphone. It described how different their data transmission is from that of computers. Whereas some tools exist on computers to manage various types of cookies (thus allowing the user management of information flow), those tools are absent for smartphones.

But it’s all anonymized, right, so who cares?

Not so fast! There’s anonymous and then there’s anonymous. For example, would you rather:

a)   have a detailed file about you with your name on it;
b)   have a detailed file without your name attached;
c)   have a detailed file without your name, but with the data tied to your face;
d)   have a file so detailed that it’s even called a fingerprint, but without your name.

Please note there is no choice of ‘e) none of the above.’

Option A is basically your credit report, but at least that should not be easy to obtain. Option B is what I expect when I go online. I try to minimize the information flow, to thwart the marketeers, but ultimately they are much more determined and well funded –and they want to know what we’re doing online. PS – just because your name’s not attached doesn’t mean it’s anonymous. Our smartphones are transmitting the phone’s unique identifier along with other data.  And location analysis will probably show that your smartphone sits at a particular address most every evening.

But surely I made up Options C and D. Wrong! Thanks for playing. Attendees at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show saw Option C in Viewdle, a Qualcomm partner. Viewdle envisions real-time, cross-platform, facial recognition at the point of capture. Identify someone in a picture you take with your phone, and it will recognize and identify that person in other pictures. Take a picture and their latest tweet or status update can appear beneath the image. And Option D? Read this article (go Wall Street Journal!!) about fingerprinted computers and see if your knees get weak.

At one point I worked in a company with 93,000 employees. They would annually ask for anonymous feedback on management styles and company performance. I had moved up quickly and was young for the responsibilities I had. A demographic page asked for job level, age, gender, ethnicity. I took to writing in the margin of my completed demographic information, “and now you know exactly who I am.”

Blue Cava plans to know exactly who you are, merging its fraud protection data with its advertising data. Hell, [x+1] may already know – they’re just being modest about it. "We never don't know anything about someone," says John Nardone, [x+1]'s chief executive, who did not have my English teacher in high school. This JPG image shows information the Wall Street Journal captured as one woman visited a bank’s credit card site. Separately, these and other companies are working on Option E – all of the above.

So does this mean we should just give up and face the inevitable? What, In America? Where we have lawyers? Apple is already facing a suit for transmitting information via iPhones and iPads. Meanwhile, the Mobile Marketing Association is trying to get ahead of the issue by setting standards for behavior. And as history shows, if the wrong member of Congress discovers this, who knows what legislation could result.

My advice? At least stay informed. And stay tuned.

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