The Evolution of Research Privacy – It’s Only Just Begun


Image by trasdun via Flickr

Chances are I didn’t give you permission to read this. You probably found this blog because of a google search or a twitter search or some other online search service. You found it through google because I checked a box on my wordpress profile page that said yes, google has permission to index this. Or, you saw a link that I personally posted on twitter and you clicked through it. Either way, you only got here because I let you, I gave you permission.

I fully expect that someone at some point will read this. Maybe even a few people. That’s what blogs are for. But, the average person doesn’t maintain a blog and they probably don’t tweet all day long. The average person probably makes the occasional update to their facebook or myspace page, or the occasional comment on youtube, or writes some scathing remark on an opinion site about some crappy product they just bought.

The more enlightened folks might know that companies actually go online and search for comments naming their products to see what people think of them. I do think, however, that most people probably don’t know that companies use automated systems to seek, collect, and evaluate those comments.

As researchers, it might seem obvious that companies would gather data online. Given the current state of the monitoring industry, if I tweet “Scor Bars suck monkeys” or “I abhor Great Canadian Superstores,” someone from those companies might try to get ahold of me to diffuse a potentially negative situation.

But wait… When I tweeted those opinions, did I actually want someone from the chocolate factory to seek me out and try to convince me that Skor Bars are totally rad? Definitely not. If I really wanted a reply from the company, I would have gone to their website and made my request there. I’m pretty sure I can find their website and I’m pretty sure I know how to fill in a form. For me personally, to have a company contact me because of a tweet I wrote would be an invasion of my personal space. Unless, of course, my tweet was @ them specifically.

Everything on the internet is there because each person agreed to put it there. If you didn’t want someone to read it, you wouldn’t have typed it out on youtube or blogger or flickr. You would also password protect your blog and turn off the search engine and RSS features. I think reading the internet for brand information is fair. Companies should read and learn and make solid business decisions based on data that is readily available. Companies should also know when to draw the line between someone who is actually seeking answers and someone who is just yapping off at the mouth.

I think there are still missing pieces though. People need to be educated that whatever they put online will actually be collected. If it isn’t password protected, it will be collected. If they don’t tell google to not index them, it will be collected. I think a lot of people will be peeved that their data is being collected without payment and then analyzed and sold for profit. It will require a lot of education, and it will be a bumpy ride as people struggle to protect their privacy rights. I think this is our responsibility as researchers and we need to spend the time to do it right. But, our industry will be better for it.

(36) Something secret

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    3 responses

    1. “I do think, however, that most people probably don’t know that companies use automated systems to seek, collect, and evaluate those comments” I agree–most of the general population would be surprised. My hunch is that probably of that group, 20% would be unhappy about it.

      But most people who are active on the Internet know that Internet is not anonymous unless you take steps to make it so. For example, most people know their product reviews on sites like Amazon are visible so they should have an “alias” if they want anonymity.

      So what does this mean for market research? Do we have an obligation to raise awareness that information is mined and in some cases sold?

      I think it’s the obligation of the sites, like Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, even WordPress etc. People need to know that when they opt to post content that it is public AND may be used/aggregated/sold by third parties. Today, these sites are pretty clear about the visibility; I am not sure they are so clear about the aggregation/selling of the content.

      1. oh, we beg to differ. 🙂
        i guess i take the viewpoint that if you are involved in the interaction, you are responsible for the interaction. There may be people with more or less responsibility but passing the buck doesn’t work for me. Plus, i don’t think the MR industry will go for this. The privacy regulations associated with traditional research are quite strict and i think it will follow through to this type of research as well.

    2. Hey Lovestats – not sure that privacy is all its cracked up to be. This is a piece I wrote for the IJMR where I argue that anonymity has been taken for granted by the MR fraternity. And that we are now at a point when it may no longer be possible unless we construct an artificial game of Peekaboo: I know who you are, or I could find out, but you have to trust that I won’t:

      I am slowly adjusting to leaving the lights on – recognising that everything that I post is out there, refusing to edit the less than flattering photos of me my kids post in facebook. Its messy but more interesting than the edited version of myself. If the corporates want it then they’re welcome. Funny thing is tell them you work in research and they suddenly lose interest. Now THAT’S immunity!

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