Should Online Companies Be Forced To Forget?

December 29, 2009
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Online companies have raised the eyebrows of privacy advocates who think Web-generated data should only be archived for a specified period of time. And while some companies have bowed to public pressure and only keep data on customer searches for a minimum of three months, others have not acquiesced. When it comes to privacy concerns, should Internet-based companies be required “to forget?”

 

Neuroscientists have long claimed the act of forgetting is important to the processes of the human mind. Humans have a need to forget especially because each day our brains deal with tons of trivial information and clutter, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of marketing messages.

Therefore, our mental processes must prioritize which facts should have more importance than others—such as ‘where are my car keys?’ versus ‘what did I eat for lunch last Thursday?’ We must forget, because according to neuroscientists, our brains would overload if we captured every detail of our lives.

Yet, unlike the human mind which has a fixed capacity, computer data stores (i.e., disk, tape etc) are getting larger and cheaper to manufacture thereby allowing companies to keep more transactional


Online companies have raised the eyebrows of privacy advocates who think Web-generated data should only be archived for a specified period of time. And while some companies have bowed to public pressure and only keep data on customer searches for a minimum of three months, others have not acquiesced. When it comes to privacy concerns, should Internet-based companies be required “to forget?”

 

Neuroscientists have long claimed the act of forgetting is important to the processes of the human mind. Humans have a need to forget especially because each day our brains deal with tons of trivial information and clutter, not to mention hundreds if not thousands of marketing messages.

Therefore, our mental processes must prioritize which facts should have more importance than others—such as ‘where are my car keys?’ versus ‘what did I eat for lunch last Thursday?’ We must forget, because according to neuroscientists, our brains would overload if we captured every detail of our lives.

Yet, unlike the human mind which has a fixed capacity, computer data stores (i.e., disk, tape etc) are getting larger and cheaper to manufacture thereby allowing companies to keep more transactional details very inexpensively.

In fact, thanks to accelerating technological change, companies can now take advantage of less expensive data storage to keep transactional data for longer periods of time—with the ultimate goal of mining data for insights to improve the customer experience.

However, data retention policies of considerable length run head first into concerns from privacy advocates. For example, according to a Washington Post article, online search companies have policies in which they actively keep query data from 3-18 months, and in some instances longer. Their rationale? Online search companies say query data is used to improve their algorithms, optimize search results, and provide advertisers better targeting.

Privacy advocates, however, argue that search queries often contain personal details, and taken collectively can reveal a complete picture of the person using the search engine. Ultimately, they say, too much power in the hands of a few key search engines is a privacy nightmare.

To effectively meet customer needs in a very complex and fluid economic environment, companies must be able to collect and analyze data to understand customer behavior, drive better communications and respond to changing customer needs. That said, the benefits of data collection and analysis must coincide with responsible behavior.

Questions:

  • Should online companies be required to “forget” what they know about their customers and transactions? If so, what is the cut-off point?
  • Should corporations advertise that they quickly “forget”—much as Ask.com has?
  • Are consumer privacy concerns regarding data collection policies more bark than bite?