Modern society thrives on the connectedness that is offered by constantly evolving technology and the internet. Many of the things that the average person takes for granted are powered by computers and the ability of these computers to network with each other. However, at what point do security holes and information sharing begin to compromise personal privacy?
CNNMoney.com and Business 2.0 recently published their 7th annual ���101 Dumbest Moments in Business��� report for 2006. One of these moments which resonated with me was this blunder made by AOL:
In an ���attempt to reach out to the academic community with new
research tools,��� AOL releases the search queries of 657,000 users.
Though AOL insists that the data contains no personally
identifiable information, the New York Times and other news
outlets promptly identify a number of specific users, including
searcher No. 4417749, soon-to-be-ex-AOL-subscriber Thelma
Arnold of Lilburn, Ga., whose queries include ���womens underwear���
and ���dog that urinates on everything.���
The gaffe leads to the resignation of AOL���s chief technology officer
and a half-billion-dollar class-action lawsuit.
In a perfect world, search queries and other tech-actions of a personal nature would live the moment they are processed and then disappear forever. Unfortunately, this is not the way technology works and pretty much everything done on a computer these days is recorded. But if all our actions are to be recorded, then we should at least be able to take comfort in the fact that this data will not be disseminated to random third-party organizations.
While personal data is quickly becoming the currency of the realm and extremely valuable to a wide variety of companies and institutions, holding this type of personal data in confidence is mutually beneficial for all involved parties.
Consumer confidence is maintained when a feeling of security and trust is experienced. Similarly, companies benefit from being trusted by their customers���trust that seems to be hard to come by for large companies these days. Case-in-point: avoiding costly lawsuits and negative publicity such as those experienced by AOL. I should patent this theory���C2: Eric���s Theory of Consumer-Company Relations!
It all comes down to trust. A senior executive at IBM shared his thoughts with me on this topic: when making decisions or faced with internal issues, he noted that he would apply the ���Light of Day��� test to the situation. How would customers, other companies, the general public, etc. respond if and when the decision, event, or situation saw the ���light of day.��� If AOL had applied this rule to their search query decision, they would have realized that sharing the personal data of over half a million users was not a good idea and avoided the negative situation that ensued.
However, mistakes can be productive learning experiences, and hopefully companies facing issues similar to those experienced at AOL will use this as a guide. To quote Batman Begins (and reveal that I am a total nerd), ���And why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.���