July 1996


I Have Seen the Enemy and it is Me

by Stephen Doheny-Farina

Anyone who ponders the implications of the digital network revolution for more than just a few minutes will probably become alarmed at the threats to privacy posed by the uses of the new communication technologies. That's not surprising nor is it news. We should all be well aware of the invasion of privacy potential of the net through issues such as the trade in digital consumer credit information, control over encryption technologies with controversies such as the Clipper Chip and, despite its recent setback in the courts, the infamous Communication Decency Act and the threat that some government agency may be charged to monitor and control elements of the Internet. The net-as-Big-Brother has become just as vivid a cultural theme as its opposite, the net-as- engine-of-democracy. Just look at how Hollywood has jumped on the scary-technology bandwagon with a whole range of dark movies about digital networks wending their evil tendrils into our lives (e.g. The Net, a kind of invasion-of-the-privacy-snatchers thriller).

I'm willing to admit that in a miniscule way I have made my own contribution to this frightening vision the net. In this column I have raised alarmist fears about the development of "ubicomp" technologies--computer badges that enable others to track the location and activities of those who wear the badges--which spawned responses by its developer, Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC, and by David Porush of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Rightly or wrongly in that Last Link column and in all of the other controversial privacy areas I've mentioned above, the threats seem clearly drawn. They focus primarily on examples of forced or surreptitious surveillance by some entity with power, like an employer or a government agency, over individuals with little or no power. Clearly, that seems like something we want to avoid. But what if the individual held all of the power over his or her own privacy, what then? If I control access to personal information about me, my thoughts, my actions, my habits and tastes, my movements and location, is my privacy safe, protected, inviolable? I don't think so.

Why? Because I am weak. Because I can be seduced. While I should remain ever vigilant against forced or surreptitious surveillance, I also need to realize that such scenarios are not the only nor probably the most likely threat to my privacy. In fact, the greatest threat to my privacy may be me and my willingness to give it away for next to nothing in return. And there are millions and millions of dollars supporting thousands and thousands of talented, creative people who are working to make me want to squander my privacy in the blink of an eye. Where do they work? In ad agencies under the heading, interactive advertising. What are they doing? Developing interactive ads that will act as a means to collect data about individual consumers. This is, as noted by G. Pascal Zachary in the Wall Street Journal, the "I Spy" scenario in which the customer's every keystroke or input message is collected by intelligent agents to build a portrait of that customer as consumer. "Such use of data culled from interactive consumers," says Zachary, "might alarm privacy advocates, but it will give advertisers an unprecedented ability to mold their messages to individual tastes" (p. B1).

The goal? Ideally, it is to be able to market products not to broad, blunt demographic targets, like males age 18-30 making $20- 30,000 and living in Northeastern suburbs, but to actual individuals--only on a mass scale. "In being digital I am me," says Nicholas Negroponte, "not a statistical subset. Me includes information and events that have no demographic or statistical meaning." (p. 164). And such information, he notes, has value to a marketer who wants to sell me something. This is not narrower demographics but actual personal contact. In practice, however, interactive advertising through the net has a slightly different emphasis. It's purpose is not only to make consumers want to provide key personal information to the advertiser but also to make the consumer want to participate in the advertising experience. The ultimate interactive ad thus draws a consumer in so completely that the individual buys the product while interacting with the ad-- impulse buying with just a click of the mouse. But for this to work the customer has to want to become part of the sell.

This complicity between seller and buyer has been wonderfully illustrated in a 1995 episode of PBS's, Frontline, entitled "High Stakes in Cyberspace," hosted by Robert Krulwich. In this show we see why individuals may decide to give up their privacy to corporate marketers in three interrelated ways:

First, we give up our privacy--we give them our identity--for a reward: For example, a Diet Pepsi ad campaign set up on the web attracted 500,000 people to call a toll-free number and answer questions about themselves and their interests in exchange for a remote chance to win a Coke home-vending machine. Most importantly, you couldn't win if you didn't give them your name and address.

The obvious problem for advertisers in such an exchange is that it might cause the potential consumer to stop and think about whether or not the potential reward is worth letting out one's personal information and identity. Weighing the potential reward against the act of giving information implies scrutiny which is a dangerous act from the point of view of advertisers. They may not want you to view the exchange as a rhetorical issue. It is not a decision for which we deliberate pros and cons. This is meant to be arhetorical. It is meant to be something we merely feel OK about.

That is more effectively achieved by the second type of interactive advertising--the type that asks us to give up our privacy just for the fun of playing with the advertiser's games: our identity for entertainment. In the Frontline investigation, Krulwich illustrates this point through a web-based ad campaign designed for Zima, an alcohol drink targeted to young drinkers. The Zima website offers individuals the opportunity to play games while also providing personal information that will help Zima better understand it's potential customers. By helping Zima expand and enhance its own ad copy, the potential customer participates in the advertisement. The motivation? The fun of interacting.

The key here, of course, is that the product must appeal to a consumer who has the time and interest to participate in an online ad campaign. This is probably a limited segment of most markets. Therefore, the ultimate achievement of any commercial interactive system is for the customer to simply agree to provide personal information because it is a harmless and easy thing to do. The goal is for us to reach a state of intimacy with an interactive system so that we don't really care that we give up our privacy, whether that act is rewarded or entertaining.

Such a situation is illustrated by Krulwich when he shows us Stargazer, a Bell Atlantic pay-per-view video system that provides movies and other entertainment programming, home shopping, and interactive advertisements. At first, this looks like an exchange system: you accept commercial advertising on the system and let the system track your choices and survey your attitudes and online behavior for the relative inexpensiveness of the entertainment system, i.e. cheap movies. But if you watch the Frontline video carefully and listen closely to Ray Smith, the head of Bell Atlantic, you will see that his ideal customers really don't mind providing Bell Atlantic access to their private lives:

R. Krulwich: "You already have the business of who's watching."

R. Smith: "Oh absolutely. And so we know who to promote to and we get all sorts of information. We would not use this information if the customer did not want us to. But most people don't care. They say, 'sure, be glad to.' Stargazer therefore knows what you are doing."

Smith goes on to say that the individual will have control over that information because the individual can have all personal information about him/herself removed from the system. Even if we believe that, we must still be wary because the game from the start is all about making us feel safe and carefree, making us not think about why or why not we should give up our identities.

Earlier in the Frontline piece this entire process is described by Fred Singer of the Washington Post's Digital Ink website. Singer says the Net is all about how to "train them (the consumer, the web surfer) to come to you (the advertiser)." Ultimately, once we give up our right to privacy or at least stop protecting our privacy, we are no longer players in the process; we are merely property to be claimed. Note what party is missing in the following quote by Yale Brown, one of the two software developers for Stargazer who were interviewed by Krulwich: "Privacy is an issue that has to be handled by the people who are producing the advertisements, who are running the networks, and who are running the government."

By giving themselves away cheap, the people who are consuming Stargazer no longer count.


  • High stakes in cyberspace. Frontline. June 18, 1996. Alexandria, VA: Public Broadcasting Service.

  • Negroponte, N. Being Digital. New York: Knopf.

  • Zachary, G. P. (1994, August 17). Advertisers anticipate interactive media as ingenious means to court consumers. Wall Street Journal, p. B1.

Stephen Doheny-Farina ('s latest book, The Wired Neighborhood will be published in September by Yale University Press.

Copyright © 1996 by Stephen Doheny-Farina. All Rights Reserved.

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