washingtonpost.com
In shoppers' online networks, privacy has no price tag

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A01

On the newest social networking Web sites, you are what you buy:

ilona spent $6.41 at Chipotle.

AshleyMarie got 1 song from iTunes for $1.29 ("Can't Be Tamed" by Miley Cyrus).

suchitagarwal spent $464.44 at Sta Travel Inc. ("Eurail Global Pass for 15 days!").

So read recent updates on Blippy, a sort of Twitter for shopping that allows users to automatically broadcast what they bought using credit and debit cards to the rest of the world.

The founders of the network and rival site Swipely say the purpose is to reveal the stories behind America's stuff and explore how much our purchases reflect our personalities. Are we Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts, Target or Wal-Mart, Payless or Prada?

"Part of it, for a lot of people, is simply: 'I shop; therefore I am,' " said Paco Underhill, a consumer researcher and author of the books "What Women Want" and "Why We Buy." "The ability to consume is part of what their identities are based on."

But privacy advocates say that users are divulging a dangerous level of personal financial information -- Blippy has reported one security breach -- and that the sites could become a gold mine for marketers seeking detailed data on potential customers.

Concern about advertiser access has spurred a backlash against social networking, with sites such as Pleaserobme.com exposing the level of personal information on Twitter and users launching a viral campaign to give up Facebook.

"You're really talking about giving up your innermost secrets to the wider world, and that has consequences," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Five months after Blippy was publicly launched, its users share $1.5 million in transactions every week, and the company says that amount is growing rapidly. Members can give Blippy access to their credit and debit card accounts as well as 15 other online accounts, such as iTunes, Netflix or Amazon. The site compiles a history of purchases, some dating back several years, and automatically records new ones. Members can choose which purchases to make public on their profiles, but the site's default setting is to share them all with the world.

Blippy co-founder Philip Kaplan calls this "passive sharing" because members don't have to sign in to use the site; Blippy already knows what you're doing with every swipe. And friends, or strangers, can join your network and watch your money leave your wallet.

"The thing that makes Blippy really fun are the unexpected conversations that happen around things that you're buying," he said. "It's a whole different dimension from what we're used to learning about our friends."

The Internet has turned shopping into an increasingly solitary experience, allowing consumers to click-to-purchase while sitting alone on their couch wearing fuzzy slippers. Part of Blippy's appeal is that it brings socializing back to shopping, experts say, part of the same trend that has prompted thousands of teenage girls to post "haul videos" on YouTube that show off their closets of stuff.

"Sharing purchases is something that people do online," said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But, she said, "people often fail to remember who exactly is in their network at any given moment -- even though you've created it yourself."

Ward Cole signed up for Blippy a few weeks ago, even though he thought the idea was "kinda creepy." The 33-year-old District resident -- who is on Digg, Delicious, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare -- said he heard about the site on Twitter and likes to be on the cutting edge of technology.

"It seemed like a little bit of an overshare, but I just kinda wanted to dive in," he said.

But once he checked out the site, the only account he felt comfortable sharing was iTunes. ("I've Got A Rock 'n' Roll Heart" by Eric Clapton, and Shakespeare and Monopoly apps for his iPhone.) He might consider linking his Amazon account, he said, but his credit and debit card accounts would be a step too far. He has invited 15 to 20 friends to sign up for Blippy, but he has had no takers.

For now, the sites say they want to establish a following and worry about making money later -- and that concerns privacy advocates: Users are relinquishing personal information without knowing how it might be used in the future.

Three years ago, Facebook experimented with a similar concept called Beacon. When members visited Web sites such as Blockbuster, Zappos and Overstock.com, it published alerts that sometimes ran alongside ads or a person's photo. The move sparked outrage among users, prompting a petition drive by MoveOn.org and a class-action lawsuit. Facebook eventually axed the program and settled the suit for $9.5 million, which it promised to use to create a foundation to study privacy issues.

But just this week, Facebook and MySpace faced another privacy snag when the Wall Street Journal discovered a loophole that allowed advertisers to track which users clicked on their ads, a violation of the sites' privacy policies. The companies have promised to fix the problem.

"It's not just about a private exchange between friends. The business is basically about providing access to you to advertisers and marketers," said Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy. "There are little strangers listening in."

The founders of Blippy and Swipely say they are committed to transparency and intend to keep users informed as their advertising plans develop.

When Blippy discovered a technical problem last month that exposed several users' credit card information to Google for three months, chief executive Ashvin Kumar blogged about the issue and vowed to hire a chief security officer and create a privacy center for users.

"Posting something online is almost as bad as getting a tattoo," said Underhill, the author. "The act of pulling it off or making it disappear ultimately is expensive, and it's never complete. No matter what you do about it, it leaves a little scar."

Post a Comment


Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company