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February 17, 2012

The Creep

by stevenwyer

I have a daughter who is in the throes of high school. Like all high school kids, she and her friends have developed their own language to describe people, life and events. Two years ago she integrated “ish” in to her vocabulary. You know, it’s “coldish” outside, I’m feeling “sleepyish,” “funnish” – you get the picture.

The word this year is “creeper.” This generally describes males that are older than she thinks they should be, hairy, odd, etc. and they usually are found to be staring at her. This occurs at the gas station, the mall, traffic lights; it can happen most anywhere. As a father who is somewhat protective of his daughter I might use a word other than “creeper.” I might also be compelled to speak or gesture at these creepers and even move toward subtle confrontation should their gaze last more than 3.7 seconds; I’m funny like that.

Creep is not a word you encounter every day. These days, however, I seem to notice creeps everywhere. Those of you that have read my book Violated Online or looked through the content we post on know that I have a healthy suspicion relating to the insidious creep of both the federal government and those companies that accumulate the information we so willingly provide online.

Let me just cite a couple of interesting statistics that represent the “creep” I am talking about. The first is information recently published in a Wall Street Journal study of the top fifty Internet sites. Websites from such trusted brands as CNN and FOX to Bing and Yahoo installed an average of 64 data laden cookies and personal tracking beacons when their sites were accessed – 64 each!

We all know about the migration in which most people are participating. We are migrating to the web as our primary news source. The instantaneous nature of social sites like Facebook and Twitter make media like television and newspapers seem so 2010. But, next time you login to read the news or do a basic search, you might want to pour yourself a glass of milk to have along with the cookies.

Here is another little piece of information that represents our brain numbing march into the arms of the “creeper.” There is a company in Arkansas that you may have never heard of; Acxiom. Acxiom was founded in 1969 – long before there was a consumer Internet experience. That little company has grown and they are now listed on the NASDAQ (ACXM). Here is how their website describes their services:

Acxiom is a recognized leader in technology and marketing services that enables marketers to successfully manage audiences, personalize consumer experiences and create profitable customer relationships.

This sounds interesting and oh so user friendly. They are simply enabling marketers to give us a more fulfilling customer experience. Let me translate.

Acxiom has accumulated an average of 1,500 pieces of data on each person in its database…a database that includes 96% of Americans.

Just stop for a minute and ponder this.

I won’t even try to speculate on what is contained in those fifteen hundred fields. Where could they be getting so much information about us you might ask…the creep! Yep, all of those wonderful online experiences you are having. Those news sites I mentioned, every site that allows you to create an account so they can improve your user experience and every click from every piece of hardware you use. I read yesterday that Twitter acknowledged that when you click on the harmless Twitter “find your friends” link on your iPhone that they download your entire address book of contacts and keep that information for a year and a half. Don’t you think that is creepy? Or, maybe just a violation of your basic privacy.

Chris Palmer of the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it this way, “Search Engines and social sites such as Facebook and Twitter give you free service and the cost of their service is information about you;” lots of information. So right now you’re thinking, I had better log off, maybe just read a good book. You grab your ultra cool Kindle from Amazon: When you read, the data about which phrases you highlight, which pages you turn, and whether you read straight through or skip around are all fed back into Amazon’s servers and used to indicate what books you might like. This information is in turn sold to Acxiom. As blogger Andrew Lewis on his popular blog MetaFilter put it, “If you are not paying for something, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold.”

I could go on and on. Because of the business we are in at Reputation Advocate, I look for the creep these days. And if you can stop being so focused on the immediate issues of the day and raise your head just a bit you might begin to see the things I do. I think my daughter is right; there are a lot of creepers out there. I am not seeing them at the grocery store or the local mall food court though. The creepers that jump out at me often stare at me from my sleek Mac Air, my super cool iPad II and my oh so intelligent iPhone 4G.

We have talked to our kids about being aware of their surroundings. We don’t want to raise neurotic untrusting people. We want them to be aware of the situations that they might find themselves in. Situations that might not seem dangerous at first but that can change very quickly into an incident where they have little control and they can be harmed. It occurs to me that I might need to sit down in front of a mirror and have a heart to heart discussion with myself about the very real dangers online and the possibility that there are far too many “creepers” out there for me to pretend that where I live is a totally safe place.

Open your eyes, read a little bit and look around. You may just see enough happening around you that you also begin using the word “creep” to describe not a hairy middle aged man checking his oil a little too long at the gas pump, but the most trusted brands in America staring intensely at your every click.

Now that is creepy.

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