Corporate Privacy

We had the Senate & House Facebook thing playing Tue/Wed – kind of background noise because anyone who didn’t realize a billion dollar corporation offering a “free” service was making money somehow on the back-end … well, didn’t bother thinking about it. But there were a few interesting tidbits (not the least of which being how many things one can claim, before a Congressional panel, to be ignorant of in spite of the topic being germane to the core operation of one’s company). The thing that stood out most to me through two days of testimony is that no one questioned the validity of the underlying service – consumerism is good, hence serving ads more likely to convince a person to buy the product is good too. I’ve got friends exclaiming that they’ve found products they’d never have known existed without targeted ads — which to me sounds like you’ve spent money on “stuff” that you didn’t need enough to go out and research something to fill that gap. Not a bad thing per se, but certainly not the laudable endeavor they make personalized advertising out to be. The flip side to presenting me ads that are more likely to convince me to buy something (assuming this is true, which dunno … sounds good on the face of it, but I tend to be put off by it and less likely to buy something) is, well, me buying more ‘stuff’ which is not always to my economic benefit.

But when they got onto the topic of Facebook Pixels (which work around people who block third party cookies), it got me thinking about the lack of control we all have over metadata. A lot of companies serve a menagerie the third party cookies from their site, and then execute a couple of third party JS trackers too. Because, as a company, it provides those third parties with data that potentially help drive sales. In theory. But do those marketing companies have some kind of non-compete clauses included in the contract they write with WIN? Can FB, Adobe, Google, etc have code embedded in a telco’s site, take the info they gather from my telco’s embedded JS code, and use it to promote non-telecom services? Cable TV even though it competes with a component of our business? An alternate telecom even though it’s a major line of our business? Is there a meta-category of “people who looked at my site but also looked at two competitors sites” v/s “people who have only looked at my site”?  At least that’s governed by contract and might be tightly controlled — although I doubt an org like Facebook tracks the provenance of each bit of metadata it collects to isolate its usage, that’s based on a feeling rather than any knowledge of their internal algorithms.

Employees visiting various sites — what data to we leak and how can that be used? It’s not like my company has any sort of agreement in place to control how CompanyX uses data gathered as our employees use CompanyY’s web site. My super paranoid brain goes to the potential for abuse — a competitor using our information against us. Not the marketing company directly – like FB doesn’t sell my name and data (that’s what they make their money on after all, using my data to throw me into advertising buckets) … but the company gathering the data can get acquired. Quite a few companies use Triblio – some niche B2B tracking thing as well as Google Analytics. Now Google isn’t a big acquisition target, but some small B2B marketing company? VZ bought Yahoo, so it’s not like the only thing they’re buying is towers and fiber. VZ buys Triblio and we’re in the beginning stages of forming some new product line through some company that uses Triblio. VZ doesn’t exactly know what we’re planning to sell in six months … but they’ve got a good idea. Or even industrial espionage — it’s getting to the point it makes a lot more sense to target one of these data brokers than to target a specific company.

I get that’s a little far-fetched and more than a little paranoid. Is targeted marketing effective for companies too – are company-targeted ads convincing the company’s employees to buy more stuff on the company’s behalf?

As a company are we benefiting, harmed, or indifferent to information being gathered from our employees as they navigate the web. Employees are going to show up from an assigned netblock most of the time (i.e. from the office or VPN), so it isn’t like it’s a super-hard-to-ascertain where the individual works. Is there benefit to blocking the tracking ‘stuff’ on a corporate level (and maintaining a default browser config that blocks third party cookies)? Is there harm in blocking the trackers? The parade of horrors approach would say with Facebook/Google specifically, widespread blocking would necessitate some other revenue stream for the company (i.e. we’d end up buying 1$ hundred search passes or something). Dedicated targeted advertising companies – beyond putting a company out of business (e.g. Triblio which seems to be a dedicated marketing data company) or reducing revenue (e.g. Adobe since they’ve got other profitable lines of business), not much direct impact. A vividly imagined parade would be worldwide recession as psychologically engineered spending prompts disappear and consequently consumer spending retracts. Worst thing I can come up with is being perceived as a bunch of hypocrites who track everything customers do on their site but specifically took efforts to prevent employees from being tracked around the web.

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