Specifics are important.  Personally identifiable Information (PII) includes; name, address, telephone number, email address, financial account number, government-issued identifier (e.g. Social Security), and anything used to identify, contact or precisely locate a person.   Sensitive consumer information overlaps with PII and includes; Government-issued identifiers, Insurance plan numbers, Financial account numbers, precise real-time geographic location of an individual derived through location-based services such as through GPS-enabled devices, and precise health information and family medical history.  Consumers do not want this revealed involuntarily.  That can expose them to danger or identity and financial theft or embarrassment.

If thieves invaded your home to steal a copy of your PII or sensitive data, they might face a 357.  But on the web, a handgun won’t protect you from information theft.  Out there, the rules are unsettled, and it’s dangerous to trust the sneaky technologies and reassuring pontifications of advertisers and identity thieves.  On the web an internet user can find it hard to distinguish between thieves collecting PII and “legitimate” advertising businesses collecting PII.  And often, a thief becomes efficient by stealing PII collected by legitimate but insecure businesses.

Advertising is twice as effective when the message matches a person’s interest.  The conversion from “just clicking” to actually buying jumps from 2.8% to 6.8% – a massively profitable improvement.  But interest-based advertising requires knowing the person’s interests.  To approximate the person’s interests, advertisers record his movements across and within internet sites (his behaviors) and combine that with PII to derive the person’s “interest.”

Fearing unfavorable PII collection legislation, in 2009, five associations crafted principles that apply to PII collection and online behavioral advertising. More recently, the Network Advertising Initiative representing 80 “online advertising companies” posted its members’ code of conduct and provided a useful opt-out mechanism for consumers.  Many consumers feel that their agreement is required before anyone collects their PII, but NAI members presume they have the right to collect PII without the consumer’s prior agreement (but prior agreement is needed for use of sensitive information).  This policy is not benign.  Google, a NAI member, recently began blending PII from Google.com, YouTube, and Gmail.  As a result; “Google… collects your device data such as hardware, software, operating system, version numbers, IP address, and cell phone network information, including your phone number.  This data can help pinpoint your location, which helps advertisers target specific markets. The bad news is that a determined stalker, identity thief, or cyber-criminal can get at this personal information.”

PrivacyChoice.org offers tools for creating privacy policies suited for mobile applications.  For consumers, PrivacyChoice offers TrackerBlock, a browser-preference approach that does not rely on trackers honoring “opt-out” cookies.  Unfortunately, Google has been subverting the browser preferences that consumers set in Internet Explorer and Safari.

Advertiser behaviors may have been worse in the past, but they are not yet acceptable because the abuse of the consumer’s personal information is too lucrative.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Colorado.  He follows public policy from the consumer’s perspective.