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You Own Your Own Metadata The only way corporations are going to overcome online privacy issues is to share more, not less, of their customer data. Guess who with? Their customers. Will Kreth explains.

"TELL ME WHY, WHY, WHY did you recommend the new Jennifer Lopez CD to me, Amazon, when you know I'm more of a Latin Playboys kind of guy?" This is the question I asked myself the other day when mucking about with Amazon's recent addition of the "Why?" link on their Web site; which takes you to a page that might -- or might not -- tell you exactly why they thought J. Lo would be my particular cup of tea. It is all part of Amazon's recently expanded Recommendations service, which -- if you have the patience and the faith that somehow your time spent there will be worthwhile -- is all about collecting and displaying metadata.

Technically defined as data about data, metadata in this case is really information about a noun -- a person, place, thing, product, or service. For instance, if you buy a pair of pants, the metadata about that pair of pants could include the color, the size, the designer, the country it was made in, the type of fabric it was made of, the washing instructions, and so on. From online banking and stock trading to electronic filing of tax returns, early adopters of new technologies now have electronic access to (and control of) their personal financial data and metadata in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. Today, with home banking programs like Quicken and Microsoft Money -- or with Web-based financial account aggregation and bill-paying services like Yodlee and PayMyBills.com -- we can see not just what we bought (the data), but also the "meta": the price; where we bought it and when; what tax classification the purchase falls under; and what percentage of our budget that purchase (and others like it) make up of our monthly and yearly totals.

Of course, for every noncash purchase that we make, a record or history of the transaction is created. Beyond the simple accounting of a check register or a paper receipt, today online you can see the way your bank or financial institution accounted for your purchase. And not just at the end of the month; but within days -- sometimes hours -- after the transaction.

Online banking and electronic tax preparation/filing are "rubber meets the road" applications that force individuals to pay attention to the details of their spending habits and purchase history. On my account history page, Amazon, the paragon of e-tail personalization, gives me a way to look at every purchase I've ever made from them. Busily crunching their collaborative-filtering numbers on the server-side, Amazon uses my purchase history, clickstream, and my own ratings and modifications of that data to decide what to recommend to me.

The long-term problem with this model: Unlike the relationship I have with my online banking provider, I cannot easily download this information and repurpose it to my advantage. In effect, it is not a shared purchase history. I cannot easily or readily map this information against other competing vendors of Amazon to conduct comparison shopping. I cannot currently download this information onto a personal smart card for use in a real-world retail environment (but that day may be fast approaching). For Amazon (and other e-tailers), this is a bedrock part of their business model -- increasing both customer loyalty and the cost of switching to another vendor by building a massive, proprietary, and "one way" customer database of opt-in preferences, wish lists, clickstreams, and purchase histories. But the days where companies can benefit from all of these goals -- and not allow the customer an increased level of control of this data and metadata -- are numbered.

A new approach is needed -- one that is entirely contrary to the tacit corporate management assumption that consumers don't want a level playing field regarding the monitoring of their online behavior (that is: they don't know enough, don't care, can't be bothered). That new approach is based on sharing and disclosure.

FLOATED BY A RAFT of infomercials and print ads, the Digital Convergence Cue Cat barcode scanner arrived last year in the mailboxes of subscribers to magazines such as Wired and Forbes, and was given away for free at Radio Shacks across the country. Wired publisher Drew Schutte enclosed a letter with the magazine, explaining that selected articles and advertisements in upcoming issues would be accompanied by special Cue Cat barcodes that, when scanned by a PC-connected Cue Cat, would instantly take the user to a related or corresponding Web page. Beyond the value proposition of not having to type in the URL, there was zero effort to discuss why anyone would actually want to use this thing.

As fate would have it, it didn't take long for our Slashdot-reading friends in the Linux/Open Source software community to hack the Cue Cat and start writing software to take advantage of this once proprietary little feline scanning device. Concurrently, these deconstructionists discovered that the chip in the Cue Cat had a unique ID number, one that could potentially be tracked and mapped against profiles of consumer behavior and direct marketing databases. Spinning madly on damage control to protect their investment in distributing millions of these kitties, Digital Convergence claimed that it was never their intention to use this ID to track users, but privacy advocates weren't buying it.

Forging ahead in the wake of controversy, Digital Convergence is attempting to overcome the clunkiness of the wired-to-the-PC Cue Cat with a newly released wireless Cross Pen version. And other manufacturers, including scanner giant Symbol, are working with cell-phone makers like Motorola to put bar-code scanners in cell phones, as well as lowering the price point of their co-branded Palm devices that already include their scanners.

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