In a world of endless information sharing, consumers have become the product. Platforms such as Google, Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter are the new factory floor, and online users, who leave digital crumbs as they browse the web and tap into social networks, generate data that can be bought and sold. Every tweet tweeted, badge unlocked, website searched and “Like” button clicked adds to the growing inventory of user information. Data miners then sort it, package it, market it — and companies use it to better target customers.
Privacy advocates say that the collection of data has gone too far, exploiting consumers who have less and less control over how their personal information is doled out. Recently, the drumbeat for protection of digital privacy has been growing louder. Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz in October denounced online data collectors as “cyberazzi” and called for a “Do Not Track” mechanism that would help consumers better control the online information they share. Facebook is nearing a settlement with the U.S. government over charges that it made “material retroactive changes” to its privacy policies in December 2009, rendering information about subscribers public by default without their consent. Individuals and groups have sued tech firms, search engines and social media companies, alleging privacy violations, and lawmakers have introduced several pieces of legislation to make data collection more transparent.
Others argue that the data trove breaks down barriers and opens doors, giving companies unprecedented insight into what customers want and helping them deliver more of what consumers need.