Data Transparency in Retail

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 4/23/2014 | 65 comments

David Wagner
Retailers, take a tip from a video game and tell your customers what you know about them.

A new advertisement for the game Watch Dogs just gave us a very chilling view of the man behind the social media curtain. It isn't so much that we didn't already know that social media knew too much about us, but suddenly we know how much all that information is worth. And if retailers were smart, they'd share that information with customers.

Watch Dogs has created a free app that lets you see your digital shadow. If you give it your Facebook login, it analyzes your public profile and creates a dossier-like file as if it were being given to a criminal trying to kill or bribe you.

I was going to post a screen shot of mine, but honestly, the information was actually too personal to post. Instead, here is a spooky trailer about it.

The dossier includes pictures of me and the "percentage accuracy I could be identified" by my Facebook pictures. It includes a description of my Friends under categories like pawns, liabilities, stalkers, obsessions, and scapegoats. For instance, liabilities are people who routinely tag me and reveal private information about me in their posts. The dossier even includes a description of my personality and the words that I use most in my posts as potential psychological triggers.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the app was that it guessed my salary within a very small range of the actual amount just by looking at what I discuss online. It also "guessed my password," which it claimed it could crack in less than 90 seconds by looking exclusively at my posting habits. It provided several hundred guesses; none were correct, but some were eerily close to real passwords I've used.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there were whole fields where it said I had protected myself and it couldn't make a guess, so I am actually fairly secure. So even though I am rather secure, I clearly am not. The app even gave a total for the value of my Facebook information. The number was higher than I'd have guessed.

Of course, it is no surprise that social media information is valuable and vulnerable. What makes this so frightening is that all of this was revealed to me by a third party in the name of advertising. In many ways, Ubisoft (the company that makes Watch Dogs) has done a great service to the public for free. And it makes me wonder: Why isn't there more transparency from retailers about the data they hold?

What if Target or Walmart told you exactly what they knew (and guessed) about you from your shopping habits? Wouldn't you actually trust them more? We all know they keep our data. Wouldn't we feel better knowing exactly what they knew, instead of guessing what they might know? It is similar to the concept of the coverup being worse than the crime. If Amazon and others are accumulating this data and not telling us what they are keeping, that's a coverup. Knowing the exact value of the data Facebook keeps about me has made me nervous about Facebook. But if Facebook said these same things to me, I'd think, "Facebook understands my value." Don't we all want that?

Of course, you run the risk of a customer being unhappy with how much you know. But if you stick to what the customers have already given you, and you provide a service that they like, you are unlikely to turn them off. We all know Facebook knows too much about us, and yet we keep feeding it daily. Retailers can get the same treatment by displaying a little trust in the customer.

One problem with this strategy is that retailers are probably less likely to be able to construct a clear dossier like this from social media. The immediate question is why not. If you can't construct dossiers on customers, how do you expect to serve them? So, if you have to, start there. Then do the brave thing and share what you know. You might find your customers love you for it.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 7   >   >>
tjgkg   Data Transparency in Retail   5/10/2014 7:55:18 AM
Re: What You Know
@Umair Ahmed: The amount of information on some of these social media pages is really mind boggling. And it could come back to haunt people. A lot of these people seem to have time to socialize in person, then they recap everything on FB. So much effort goes into these sites. You sort of wonder what will happen when FB becomes passe and all that effort will be for naught.
tjgkg   Data Transparency in Retail   5/10/2014 7:51:04 AM
Re: What You Know
Part of the way a website identifies you would be through the IP address you are using. There is no privacy anymore. I wonder if there is even a room you can speak in that is private.
tjgkg   Data Transparency in Retail   5/10/2014 7:46:49 AM
Re: What You Know
@ProgMan: LOL! Way back when if you screamed "look at me" on the street, the cops would take you away. Today you would be in the running for your own reality show. It has become a real blight on our society that in lieu of proper jobs, many people think that the way to fortune and fame is thru self publicity.
David Wagner   Data Transparency in Retail   5/8/2014 12:01:03 PM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
@joe- You don't know what i keep in my *other* pocket. :)
Joe Stanganelli   Data Transparency in Retail   5/8/2014 8:04:47 AM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
@Dave: Sounds like a half-assed solution if you ask me.
David Wagner   Data Transparency in Retail   5/5/2014 12:58:10 PM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
@Joe- I just had the doctor carve out a dent in my butt so my wallet fits more neatly. :)
Joe Stanganelli   Data Transparency in Retail   5/2/2014 1:17:38 PM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
There are so many cultural divides between Europe and America that I wouldn't necessarily equate trends in one region with trends in the other.  For instance, I attended a conference this week where there was a panel discussion on security and privacy in genomics.  The American panelists were very pro-privacy and the European panelists were very anti-privacy (insofar as keeping data private could stifle innovation).

It seemed a little self-serving though considering how big Europeans are on privacy when it comes to other things.  Apparently the Europeans are pro-privacy unless it's their own research organization or company that wants the data.  ;)
Joe Stanganelli   Data Transparency in Retail   5/2/2014 1:13:13 PM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
My wallet was getting seriously George Costanzaesque, so I downsized.  I keep way less stuff in there and mostly use it for cash and other stuff I absolutely need.  Yeah, it's a pain in the butt sometimes not having my loyalty cards or bank cards on me, but it's worth it to have a slimmer wallet that actually fits nicely into my pants pocket without bulging and be able to pay cash more.
David Wagner   Data Transparency in Retail   4/30/2014 4:13:22 PM
Re: I Don't Want To Know.....
Apparently I'm a few days ahead of the Brookings Institute.

SunitaT   Data Transparency in Retail   4/30/2014 2:38:24 PM
Re: Data transparency in retail
Yes, retailer should be transparent to their customers. They should not just major on ways of squeezing cash from them. If every retailer can do what Watch Dog has done, I believe many retailers will risk losing customers or few retailers might win trust of many customers depending on the nature and the information the app can deliver. It is true that retailers know much about us, but they should use this information genuinely.
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