MyWare: Personalized Service or Invasion of Privacy?


Written by Dana Oshiro

This post is part of our ReadWriteStart channel, which is a resource and guide for first-time entrepreneurs and startups. The channel is sponsored by Microsoft BizSpark. To sign up for BizSpark, click here.

pleaserobme_privacy_feb10.jpgThere’s a fine line between what is considered a knowledge database and an invasion of privacy, and that line is likely to be determined by marketing. This week we wrote an article about Please Rob Me – a service that identifies Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins on Twitter and lets others know that a person is not home. While location-based services are often touted for their social and recommendation-based benefits, the realization that they can be used negatively have many questioning the responsibility of those groups that collect the data.

privacy_responsible_feb10.jpgIn mid January Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stated that the age of privacy had come to an end and we responded that evolving preferences were not a valid justification of the elimination of privacy preferences. Nevertheless, between cookie tracking and browser identifiers like those shown in the EFF’s Panopticlick and the fact that it only takes your zip code, gender and birthdate to identify you, it’s hard to ensure total privacy in the first place.

If a startup were to put up a page simply to capture the information of your friends, all of of your daily habits, your location and your purchases, few would opt in. But as Last.fm’s Felix Miller pointed out more than 4 years ago, you might do it for «myware».

While spyware is undeniably a dubious thing, myware is the practice of spying on yourself for benefit. Last.fm’s AudioScrobbler collects data on a user’s listening habits, songs, tags, preferences and friends. That information is then used to update a database and an algorithm then calculates song recommendations. Across the Web that same system of opting into myware is used to target advertising, make shopping recommendations, deliver relevant news and provide customized services. But because this is marketed as a service, rather than a personal data grab, few mainstream users weigh the disadvantages to opting in until it’s too late. Google Voice‘s transcription feature is a great way to take notes on your calls, but isn’t it akin to opting into a wiretap?

As startup entrepreneurs, what responsibility do we have to educate our users on the perils of opting in? And how can we do this without disrupting the virality of the service?

Photo Credit: Rob Pongsajapan

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