The Information Underbelly

Keith had a bit of a sense of humour failure about the SABC and their TV license drones this week. (The SABC is the South African public broadcaster.)

It’s safe to say the majority of the SABC are on special drugs that prevent their IQs from going above room temperature during office hours.

It’s not easy to be popular if you force people to buy something they don’t want or need. The SABC wants Keith to prove that he does not own a TV to avoid paying a TV license. A long time ago he did have a TV. Not anymore. The way to prove you don’t have a TV is to go to the police and get them to rubber stamp a letter stating that you don’t own one. Interesting that you need to prove you don’t have a TV.

I’m thinking.. huh?, why bother dealing with these clowns? They probably still have his home/postal address from ten years ago, but it seems they somehow have updated contact details.

This is where it gets interesting. Some business out there must be sharing personal information without their customer’s consent. Not only sharing, I’m pretty sure they are selling it.

Yes kids, there is a whole network of bottom feeders which scrub and exchange your personal information. Selling it to the people you probably never want to interact with. I suspect the people you are least interested in will pay the most for your information. Awesome little market right?

Is this a bad thing? I think it’s pretty obvious what my views are, but let’s look at it from another angle.

A while ago I had a meeting with a well respected ICT lawyer. I was telling him about TrustFabric. He seemed very interested.. but he did not really listen my story, he just assumed we were building something which would collect personal information which we could sell. So, I explained again and he looked a bit confused. Yes, we really want to give users control over their personal information. No, we don’t want to sell it.

Then he tells me about how he was involved in setting up a credit bureau in an African country. How this credit bureaus is a very positive thing, allowing credit providers to borrow money. Good for the economy etc. Credit bureaus naturally have a few deals behind the scenes to collect personal information and exchange financial information about people.

I don’t buy the idea that these information exchange deals are a good thing. I think you can build a credit rating (reputation) system in an open and transparent way while allowing people to selectively share personal information and keeping people in control of their information. I think it would be much better for a country and it’s economy if people understood the rules of the game. In this case the credit rating game.

Do you remember that scene at the end of Fight Club where they blow up the buildings which house credit data? Project Mayhem resets the credit card system. I think the personal information ecosystem needs a reboot. Companies should be forced to delete all personal information that can not be tied directly to an active customer relationship. Companies must only be allowed to keep information if the customer granted them a license to retain their information.

This sounds easier than it is, mostly because most companies have no clue which customer relationships are really active. So, maybe we just delete it all and start from scratch.. giving the customer control again.

The system needs a reboot.

3 thoughts on “The Information Underbelly

  1. Excellent post Joe. In part we’re dealing with an information asymmetry problem. The disorganised masses are powerless against a well organised “enemy” with more information.

    People like real-estate agents and property developers abuse this to no end. The building I bought and now live in is an excellent example. Lots of individuals buy on good faith, and after a year, there are still unfinished parts, and we still have contractors on site every day, dragging on the completion process to everyone’s dismay. This despite some of the owners being high-powered lawyers, at least one of them, one of the most famous ones in the country. You would think they would have the power and knowledge to do something, but they don’t. Without acting as a group, no matter how good your individual legal mind, you remain weak and can’t force compliance from these people. The developer simply go on to screw the next lot of unsuspecting buyers on his next project. And given the vast amount of newsprint dedicated to property ads, the media has a vested interest to not expose unscrupulous developers and agents. So no use writing the odd letter.

    What changes this around, is if someone is willing to expend the effort to organise and destroy the information asymmetry. In the sectional title case, as a trustee, by publishing the results of a satisfaction survey sent to each buyer in this complex, and by using a channel which has in their interest to destroy the hold of the newspapers on property reporting (think independent property website). Suddenly the developers and agents are disincentivised from screwing people, as the info is out on the web.

    In the venture capital world, did wonders for entrepreneurs, with entrepreneurs who got funding, reviewing the VCs from whom they get it. If you’re a VC and screwed someone, it’s going to go out there. It disincentivises VCs from screwing people who they rely on for deal-flow. Without the information getting out, they could do it over and over again, as you’re unlikely to get funded twice, in the same way that you don’t buy property every day.

    So to get back to the point, I think TrustFabric is exactly that, on a broad scale. It stops businesses from having undue power because they have more information – in this case – your very PERSONAL information. It doesn’t belong to them. It’s time to take it back.

  2. [quote] Some business out there must be sharing personal information without their customer’s consent. Not only sharing, I’m pretty sure they are selling it. [/quote]

    Indeed, and absolutely. The black market trade in personal information databases has been going on at corporate level at least since 1999, when I worked in a major insurance call centre running almost exclusively on contact lists bought at between 25c and 50c per entry.

    Of course, this practice was not officially sanctioned, but at the same time the MDs appeared not to notice the odd R200,000 disappearing from the budget here and there as long as the new policies kept rolling in.

    With more and more contact details distributed in the public domain, this trade must be absolutely booming now.

    And with all of it available worldwide, effectively impossible to police…

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