The perks of being lost in a crowd

Posted on 06/12/2011

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London Riots 2011 on CCTV

August 2011 in London was ablaze, as rioters trashed parts of the city. This time, it wasn’t a typical riot.

20 years ago, rioters were either arrested at the scene or disappeared back into the fabric of society. Not any more, it seems. CCTV, press photographers and even RIM, the makers of Blackberry, provided the police with images and data that has helped catch over 3,000 people (with over 15,000 hours of police footage left to be viewed).

This is both reassuring and scary.

The world we’re now living in doesn’t see us as one of hundreds of others; it sees us as individuals. We’re no longer faceless people in a crowd; we have names and public identities. CCTV, mobile phones and our online profiles now mean that we exist within a halo of data.

Two things drive this. One is technology (the rise, growth and availability of recording devices and ways to store that information). This not only makes it possible for others to identify us, but also fuels the other key factor: our need to recognised and treated as individuals.

In a weird way, the fashion industry is based around individual expression, but still following a general trend. For advertising, this means companies can identify exactly who we are and what our relationship is with them. This approach, known as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), can give us a better service but also means that companies know more and more about us.

But it doesn’t stop there. With tools like Radian6, Hootsuite and Buzzlogic, companies know exactly who is talking about them and, increasingly, what kind of person they are. They can find out their age, gender and interests – all because of the data trail we’re creating through social media. In the same way that forensic scientists can identify people through DNA in their stray hairs or bodily fluids, there’s an equivalent for social media which allows all your profile updates, blog comments and conversations around you to be pulled together to create a more accurate picture of you. Whether you’re a registered through a CRM or not, they (and anybody else) has access to your information.

Commercial enterprises aren’t the only ones. Fundraising researchers, who work for charities, universities, and not-for-profit organisations, are taking a similar approach when looking for potential donors. For example, CEO’s and some board level executives have their salaries declared in company annual reports. Using MousePrice and Zoopla and armed with your address, they can work out the value of your house, when it was bought and how much you could donate. They can also track any mentions of your name in the press and what, if any charitable concerns you might have. At what point does online “targeting” become stalking?

Your definition of stalking may vary, but it depends on their persistence and whether any laws are broken. Very few people are aware of how much information about them is out there. If you’re a chief exec, how can you expect for your name not to appear in the papers? It comes with the nature of the job. The same is not true of consumers though: Twitter is an extremely public space.

Clearly both sides have responsibilities. It’s time for companies to clean on how much information they’re recording, and our role to start declaring how much of this we’re willing to give away.

So what are your thoughts? How much personal information should companies be forced to declare? And how can we begin to trade our personal information online in return for services, without jeopardising our privacy?

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