The Big Picture

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Are you and your clients taking in The Big Picture?  That’s what the FTC is calling its December 6, 2012, workshop on comprehensive online data collection.  The event will gather consumer groups, academics, industry representatives, privacy professionals, and others to look at the current state of comprehensive data collection, its risks and potential benefits, and where it could be going in the future.

What is “comprehensive data collection”?  It’s when an entity collects information about much of consumers’ online activities across multiple locations — for example, if a company gathers data about a person’s visits to different websites or knows which apps they use on their smart phone.  Entities like internet service providers, operating systems, browsers, advertising networks, and social media may have the technical ability to perform comprehensive data collection to create consumer profiles, even though they may not be doing it now.  The FTC’s concern, of course, is what this means for consumer privacy.

Also up for discussion will be how much consumers know about comprehensive data collection.  Are people aware that it can be done?  Do they believe the benefits outweigh any risks?  Does it matter who is doing the collecting and why? Answers to questions like that could affect what kind of collection is appropriate and what companies need to do to get consumers’ consent.  Another key issue is consumer choice.  For example, what if a company announces that its mobile operating system will begin assembling profiles based on customers’ activities?  Do consumers either have to accept tracking or abandon that device and buy a different one?  Is there a better way to address that problem?

The workshop will end with a look toward the future.  What are the next steps for industry and policy makers in this area?  Will the market offer alternatives for people who don’t want their information to be compiled?  Will regulation or legislation be necessary to protect consumers’ privacy?

(That’s what’s on the table, but issues related to behavioral advertising won’t be the focus since it’s been the subject of other FTC workshops.  The Big Picture will take a look at other forms of comprehensive data collection that haven’t received as much attention.)

The workshop, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for Thursday, December 6, 2012, at the FTC’s Conference Center, 601 New Jersey Avenue, N.W., in Washington, DC.  Can’t make it in person?  The workshop will be webcast.

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