published Friday, October 1st, 2010

Jenkins: Data can turn up in strange places

by Donnie Jenkins

I’m often asked what I think will be the next tech frontier.

Certainly one of the most promising (and troublesome) areas of progress is in what’s called location-based technology. This niche was made popular by services such as Foursquare and Gowalla, then advanced greatly by attention from Facebook, Twitter and other services.

I often refer to the movie “Minority Report” to illustrate why this is so important to companies. In that movie, the character played by Tom Cruise is at one point recognized by sensors using eye scanning technology and presented with ads tailored to just him. While this may seem futuristic and unrealistic, the fact is that similar technologies are being produced or are in the works.

While this is quite appealing in some ways, it does present a dilemma. The only way a company can automatically know what we are interested in buying is to collect data on our behavior over time. Much of this information is collected with our permission, but not all. Much of it is attained using what you might call the black box approach.

The term black box is often used to refer to a closed system of some kind, one that operates automatically. A connected concept is called data mining, a process in which a company is able to use specific information to accomplish its goals, usually to target a person for a sale.

This process explains why it is so important to read contracts or “opt in” agreements when we sign up for any service online or elsewhere, especially location based services on our mobile phones. It is essential to know what personal information is being collected at any given time and especially to know how it will be used. The old adage, “hope for the best while planning for the worst” applies here.

One reason why this is so important is that there is no way to know how personal data will be used in the future. Collected data of all sorts is routinely bought and sold now. While there is usually no problem with this, it is the uncertainty of future uses that could be troublesome.

One often quoted example of this is the Social Security number. This number is a primary means of establishing our identity, yet that was not its original purpose. Likewise any data we volunteer may take on a totally different meaning over time, especially financial data and health related information.

I am not suggesting that we become data hermits, but I urge all my friends and clients to simply pay attention and be constantly aware of any actions that can expose you to possible harm now or in the future. We are moving into a new world in which data and information are taking on a new meaning and importance.

As location technology advances and we use our cell phones even more in making purchases and other endeavors, it will pay to be aware of just what we have to give up to take advantage of online coupons, instant savings and other offers. So, be aware … be very aware.

E-mail Donnie Jenkins at

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