I received an email a few weeks back from a newly launched search engine which, they say, does not collect information about you and, like totally, respects your privacy.
Meanwhile, around the world, people are getting their twanties (twitter-panties) in a twist about privacy and data collection.
But. How do you buy anything (search is that – buying information) without giving away some kind of information about you? Can you even trade – online or offline – without the seller knowing who you are? Even the smallest store you shop in will know something about you – even if it is just your preference for coffee and what brand of coffee you favour.
It makes sense, and is infinitely better for you as a customer, if the store keeper collected and used information about you. What kind of coffee you like, how many kilos of sugar you buy in a month, do you like your rice packed in plastic bags or paper. And so on. And so forth. In addition to this, if the store keeper knows you well, he will extend credit, undertake additional services for you (such as customizing your shopping bag, or door delivery, or a little extra coffee every 4 months.) and enhance your shopping experience.
On the other hand, if the shopkeeper doesn’t collect such data about you, or (in this instance) forgets all such data the minute you walk out of the shop, imagine what happens. The next time you go there, the shop keeper stares blankly at you, doesn’t recall what is so special about you, doesn’t stock the things you buy or cares not what the customers in his shop are buying, has too many confusing choices in just coffee, and so on.
When you pay for your purchases at a shop – any shop – you are indirectly telling the shop keeper/the world about your social status. If you pay by cash, or pay with your credit card, or pay using clam shells from Tunisia, the shop keeper can and will judge your status. And will store that little tid-bit of information for future use. A store/chain of stores that doesn’t collect information about its customers will not survive long enough. This is true of almost every business.
Why are search engines then expected to be different?
Correct me if I am wrong…is it because, gasp, search engines are online? You know, shops are real buildings – brick and mortar and smelly aisles. But a search engine is nowhere and everywhere. How do you ensure that the search engine is safe?
The same way you ensure the store is safe. By leaving the storekeeper to take any and all actions he sees fit to keep himself in business.
What about other services online? Should your email collect information about you? Should the sites you visit track you? Should the forums you inhabit, the chatrooms you infest, the groups you form, the blogs you flame and the videos you watch all collect potentially sensitive information about you and your computer?
If they didn’t, you’d never be able to use them repeatedly. A few months ago, I downloaded and installed Firefox 3 Beta (build 2, I think). It was a fantastic browser, and still is. The problem with that particular build was it couldn’t save my sessions. So each time I fired up my browser, I had to go through hell to login to each and every site that I create content on – this blog, flickr, youtube, twitter, gmail, facebook, blogger, google groups and more – just to keep up with what my friends were doing.
In the offline world, that would be the equivalent of telling your local storekeeper your name, your father’s name, your family history and your street address everytime you walked into his store. And that is just to begin transacting.
So, all right, login information needs to be collected. What about “sensitive” information like your IP address, your browser, your OS’s build and your monitor’s resolution? What justifies a website/service is collecting that information?
What justifies your bank in asking for your monthly income to give you a loan? What justifies the government in asking for your caste to give you a birth certificate? What justifies your employer in asking for your previous experience and a reference to your character? What justifies your bank in asking for an address proof when you open a new account? What justifies the Passport office in demanding an address proof?
Because, information about you is essential to safeguard you. If the services mentioned about didn’t ask for those rather sensitive information, it would be very easy to impersonate someone, anyone, and let the victim pay for a crime he/she didn’t commit.
Once this information is collected, it becomes authentication. Only the person who matches the information given earlier will be allowed access to that particular service. And when there’s a mismatch, a conflict, it becomes easy for both parties to sort out the issue with the information already collected.
If you don’t mind giving ICICI Bank your passport number, you have no cause to complain when websites collect information about you. Of course, the analogy is over-simplified. I even grant you that the second comparison is flawed. But the basic argument remains true – if business don’t collect information about you – the customer – they will not and cannot stay in business for long.
If Spencer’s Daily didn’t collect information about what each customer purchases and monitors such information (for instance, why is Bru selling more in Saligramam and Sunrise selling more in Sowcarpet, why is instant coffee selling more in North India whereas tea bags do not sell enough in Chennai), they’d never be able get their inventory right and it would be far too easy for a competitor to take away their market share.
If my blog (via Sitemeter and Google Analytics) didn’t collect information about my reader, I’d have been writing drivel that would make even Shivam Vij curl his nose up in disgust. (See, I know a lot of my readers like it when I go after SV. Even if SV doesn’t lke it.) If Google didn’t collect information about your monitor’s size and resolution and your IP, search engines even today would be clunky, slow and overloaded with links to a 1000 useless directories.
If the websites didn’t collect information about you, you’d still be stuck with black text and white backgrounds and pathetic animated gifs and BLINK tags. If companies didn’t know their customers, they’d be selling acidic soap and lobbying governments to protect them from foreign competition. If websites don’t know you, and the things you do online, they’d never help you find the things you want to find.
And, oh, finally, Caveat Emptor.
It’s a pity the world has forgotten that beautiful phrase.
(Apologies for blindly using the masculine pronoun to refer to keepers of shops. It is both convenient, and in my experience, true. Almost every shop (not supermarket chains) I’ve shopped in were run by men. See, I the buyer, know something about the seller too. I’ve collected data!)
(Apologies too (and two) for tense slips, grammatical flaws and inconsistent sentence structures. Also apologies for invoking Shivam Vij in this post. It was done only to illustrate a point and not to slander/libel Shivam Vij. I concede that I’ve misrepresented him, and turned him into a caricature. In my defense, I’d like to state that caricatures are usually based on some truth.)
Update: Ravikiran made the same point, in a lot fewer words, and with a very simple, fitting analogy on the Satin mailing list. He made this point on 12th March. I didn’t read the post because a) 12th March was (and is) my birthday and I was doing other things then and b) the volume on Satin is staggering and to keep track of all discussions there is a task beyond my current capacity.
I just finished reading that particular thread on Satin. There are some points raised, which you can read if you are on Satin. If you aren’t, you should read this post from top.