Women with smart phone

In the world today privacy is the buzzword of the legal and social communities.

The Edward Snowden movie coming out soon reminds us of when we learned the NSA had the capability to turn on our phones’ microphones and cameras at any time and listen in.

Many privacy concerns are not as much with our government, but with the companies that are able to watch and track us. We are angry and afraid of these companies and often are frustrated by the permissions they want us to allow for their mobile apps to work. Ad blockers and other software are used to prevent cookie tracking in our browsers. We think that this data they collect will somehow be used against us, and in a sense we are right, but not in the way we think.

Kohl’s is one such organization. I had the pleasure last fall to go to the Kohl’s research and development location in the Silicon Valley on a wonderfully hosted competition put on by Kohl’s and Southwest. The purpose of which being to help engage entrepreneurs in the tech world of today. What I saw there was the massive software analysis that they conduct via their mobile app.

If you look closely at the permissions that the Kohl’s app asks for you will see that they request to be able to use your location at all times. The reason for this is that when you get within a certain distance from a Kohl’s department store, they will send you a notification about the amount of coupons in your Kohl’s wallet and sales that may appeal to you. They know this because they are compiling all the data on what you have looked at on the app and on the websites they know you visit, all due to the cookies that are installed in your browser by visiting their site.

At first pass this seems terribly invasive, but in some way, they are providing a service. They are doing what they can to be your personal shoppers. This data helps them find out what the new styles will likely be next year. This helps them know where their users are more densely located to make sure their stores are properly stocked; when you want something, it will be there. It provides them with a platform you are likely using to look up things, be it mobile, tablet, or desktop, which helps them make sure their site is as easy to use as possible on the platform you prefer the most.

They are not out to get you. The are out to help you.

With the age of the smartphone, came the age of participatory contribution. One of the best notable versions of this is Google Maps.

While you use Google Maps, it uses you. The servers and algorithms that calculate travel times and traffic congestion know those things by using the GPS in your phone to get real time data. When your GPS shows that you are slowing down on the interstate, and all the cars using Google Maps around you are as well, the system recognizes that and begins to direct traffic away from that location to a speedier route.

That is participatory contribution, and without it things like Google Maps would not be as useful or powerful as they are. When you think about the millions of dollars saved by having real-time accurate travel information, and the speed at which we are now able to better move goods, all for free through Google, is the price you pay (your privacy) worth the service you get (Google Maps)? For many people, yes. That is why they use it.

In the real world the tradeoff is privacy for free, easy use of powerful tools.

If someone were to be your personal shopper for free, and they knew you incredibly well, would you stop them? Why is it a problem if its done by a computer?

Colin Murdy is a senior marketing major and is a Business Scholar pursuing his masters degree in Management and International Business.

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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