Privacy on the Web–Who’s Watching Me?

I’ve had a couple of situations recently that have made me feel a bit “creeped out” about what others may know about me or have the potential to know about me. I started my communications career in the field of direct marketing so I’m not a huge privacy fanatic, but it does seem that technology may create issues that previously didn’t exist–some significant. 

For a long time now, I’ve watched in interest as my web surfing seems to attract email offers related to what I’ve been searching online. I understand the use of cookies and how they work. But, more recently, I’ve been noticing how my outgoing email messages seem to be generating other email messages with offers related to words I may have used.

For instance, I sent a message to a friend in which I talked about potentially taking a cruise and/or visiting Hawaii next year. That same day I started receiving emails about cruises and trips to Hawaii. I sent another email to a banker asking about refinancing my mortgage. Soon I was receiving email messages about great mortgage rates from other lenders. Hmmm. Clearly the “Internet bots” are somehow monitoring and using my email content to market things to me. I’m not sure what I think about that.

Then, I had an even more troubling situation occur with my Kindle. I downloaded a couple of books over the weekend to read  while out of town. I was almost done with one book and had bookmarked a number of pages for follow-up later. When I got home I began going back through the bookmarks, got through one and deleted it–or so I thought. Actually I deleted the whole book! Now, here’s the good and the bad of that:

  • The good. I was able to go back on Amazon and re-download the book. Unfortunate, I thought, that I would lose all of my bookmarks, but at least I still had the book. But wait…
  • The bad. My bookmarks were still there!

While I was glad all of my effort hadn’t gone to waste, I did find it a little unnerving. Does that mean that Amazon has electronic access to all of the Kindles all around the country with all of the bookmarks and notes that Kindle readers are adding? Bookmarks and notes that may be being added by entrepreneurs both little and well-known? Bookmarks and notes that may be being added by politicians-perhaps (gasp!) even by the president…

OK – I’m not suggesting that Jeff Bezos has ill intent in mind or some nefarious plan to mine the collective wisdom of Kindle owners by checking to see what they may have highlighted or bookmarked. And I suppose there is even the possibility that I was informed about this through one of those online disclosure documents that I was asked to read and accept (and which, of course, I didn’t read). But, the idea that my privacy *could* be invaded in this way is still a little unnerving.

As a marketer, I love the opportunities that technology gives me to learn more about consumer behaviors online. I like being able to ferret out who may be opening my emails and visiting my web site. I like to have the ability to do follow-up marketing with these people. And, I don’t generally mind that other marketers can do the same with me. But, it’s still a little creepy…

I’m curious to know about others’ experiences and thoughts about this (on both sides of the fence). What do you think?

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