Want Some Candy for that Digital Privacy?

Image Via Take This Lollipop It is Halloween time and with that comes the resurgence of freaky serial killer folklore, scary movies, ironic costumes, teeth-rotting candy and the new soon-to-be, if not already, viral Facebook App Take This Lollipop designed to give you the chills about what it would be like to be hacked and cyber-stalked by a lunatic. It demonstrates just how easily the wrong person might be able to see private pictures of you, the pictures of your children, who your friends are, where you have been or even live, what you like….data, data, data, loads of private data that we willingly and publicly give up each day.

The digital marketer in me is highly impressed and thinks the app is brilliant. It has killer (no pun intended) integration of personalized user data into the experience. So detailed in fact, that you forget it is not real when watching it. It of course has a built-in social media share and a viral inducing me-first factor so you can happily be  number one amongst your friends to unleash this creepiness out into your network. It has great video production and total creep factor music to set the mood, ooh and that the bit at the end with the…well you will just have to experience it for yourself as I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. Can’t you just see the potential for these types of personalized apps for marketing and hawking holiday cheer?

Yet, the mother in me was totally and utterly freaked the hell out. As I watched this experience and saw an image of my child with a leering shadow cast across the screen, I had an almost vomit-inducing reaction. The thought of someone unintended seeing my child’s image on the internet and using it for evil, made feel more than frightened, it made me feel anger.

Yet each day, I take that risk when I  post countless photos of my children on Facebook, Twitter and even Instagr.am. I tell stories about them on this blog and share private details about them. Of course I have certain privacy settings on my Facebook account enabled and I am careful not to geo-tag my home location, but it is enough?  It is really that hard to find me. Not really.  Just look at the screen shots below and what I so eagerly agreed to give up. Not only did I give up my data, but I gave the app permission to post data on my behalf.  That is an incredible amount of power to give to a stranger, no?

Is this app harmless? Probably. Are they going to steal all my data and use it against me? Probably not. I did however have this strong urge to know who developed the app so I could gage whether or not it was legit, so I of course googled it. Yep, legit, done by the guy, Jason Zada, who did Elf Yourself. Ooh…that app was funny and it was for Office Max, he has to be on the up and up, right?  Whew, no way this app developer isn’t sitting in a room somewhere with my login, my password, looking at photos of my kids photos, my location and my bank account and my social security number…or is he? If not this developer, what is to stop someone else from doing it. What is so compelling to me about this app, is that it exposes to us what could happen if we don’t protect our private data properly, yet the irony is that in order to do so, it asks us to give up that private data, which we of course do, willingly. And just like that, we are the little girl being lured into the back of the van with a lollipop. The app could very well be the leering man looking at the picture of my child.  Was this Zada’s purpose behind the app? Did he want us to think about privacy? Or was it just meant to be a fun halloween BOO!?  Either way, it sure got me thinking.

Cyber stalking is not that old. In fact it is relatively young compared to most crimes. A Little known fact is that my home state of Michigan was actually the first state to prosecute and convict the first cyber stalker. That was only back in 1994.  It was a man who had met a girl through an online video dating service. They went on a few dates, she wasn’t interested and told him to bugger off, he didn’t get the hint, wouldn’t stop emailing her and professing his love for her, so she pressed charges. Oh and there was an incident or two where he set up camp outside of her work, which just happened to be a school, and left an unwanted gift or two on her door step. You know the kind of stuff that wouldn’t creep a girl out or anything.  For her sake she was terrified, but for him he swore innocence and it became his claim to infamy, his sort of Heavy Weight title for the World’s First Convicted Cyber Stalker. He even went on A Current Affair, remember that show? Is it still on?

How do I know so much about this story you may ask?  Well, I worked with THE guy, not at the time of the stalking of course, but long after. I worked with him for about a year before he disclosed this knowledge to me. He was our lead Lingo developer at the time. Yes I said Lingo! Oh the horror, for those of you who spent time trapped with me inside of Director you get what I am saying. We often had project deadlines that lasted late into the evening. This was back before everything was delivered electronically and often these evenings culminated in a late night CD Rom burning dash to the Detroit Metro airport to pop that sucker on the last Fed Ex flight out for the night. So naturally a co-worker who was male would offer to walk a co-worker who was female safely to her car at night, right? This particular gentleman did so for me on many occasion. In fact it was on one of those walks across that ill-lit parking lot when he decided to tell me the story.  To say I was thoroughly creeped out would be an understatement. I always knew he was a little off, I mean he was one of those guys who would talk you all the way to your door and continue talking long after you had shut it and driven off. I just thought he was friendly and well maybe a little lonely. When he confessed his secret, I thought he was joking. Then he told me “Nope, it’s true, look it up” so I quickened my step to my car and I am sure you can guess the first thing I did when I found myself safely at home that night, and yes it was true. All of it, even the Current Affair part of the story.

Cyber-stalking was a new concept then. People and governments didn’t really know how to categorize it, prosecute it or even punish it and it was tough to prove. Was this guy a harmless cat who just couldn’t take a hint and thought the more he showed interest the more likely the girl would come around? Or was he really a pyscho? In this case, I can say after several years of working with him, he was the former.  Was he an odd duck? Yes!  Was he a little creepy for thinking his title of World First Cyber Stalker was a badge of honor? Yes!  Was he harmless and misunderstood? Lucky for me, Yes, or at least I think he was. Does it make his behavior right or less creepy? No.

What I am getting at here is that cool app that asks you to grant your private data for a good time or walks you to your car late at night, might not be as harmless as you hope. Users have to use caution when clicking “allow”. As for app developers and campaign generators, be careful what you ask for, you don’t want to develop an app that asks people for so much information that it beckons mistrust. As people become more aware of the valuable data they are giving up, we could see a push back on personalized data campaigns in the digital space. The best will can all do as a digital society is to strive to make sure that the candy we hand out or eat is free from those hidden razorblades. Who has an x-ray machine I can borrow?

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Hey Sheryl. Love the post. It’s an issue I really struggle with as someone who loves to share and also understands the ramifications of sharing.

    You are a gifted story teller and I can so appreciate the effort that went into this post.