The Invisibility Motive

There’s a new release of Tor out today, a piece of freeware that lets you connect to a virtual underground railroad for data, helping you surf and move data anonymously over the Internet. The software establishes a network path of servers between you and your destination, but each server only knows which server the data is coming from and which server it is going to, not the entire origination-destination path. As the site explains, it’s like taking a twisty path that is hard to follow and erasing your footsteps as you go.

Other than the obvious drivers and fears behind such technology (anonymous access to porn, hidden communications among terrorists, anonymous hacking and spying), there are some mainstream drivers that are of significant interest to marketers.

First of all, there is significant demand for anonomyzing internet activity. Marketers have come to rely more and more on the powerful demographic and behavioral data they can gather from Internet customers which helps them target their products and messaging more effectively. But a lot of users are uncomfortable with the notion of being tracked, and are willing to take steps to become invisible–even to hide such seemingly innocuous data as their browser type and version, through tools like Privoxy. There are many good arguments that collecting demographic and behavioral data is good for consumers, because it ensures better products and more effective (and thus cheaper) distribution. Unfortunately, business has cultivated an increasing antipathy among many consumers with invasive tactics that make consumers fearful of protecting their private information and behavior.

So what happens if this technology takes off? Companies will still have access to powerful behavioral data based on the traffic traversing their site, but some of the data they have today will either be lost, or become statistically suspect–such as geographic data, browser and platform data, and anything not derived directly from activity on their own site.

The second interesting use being explored among early corporate adopters is the use of anonymizing technology to conduct competitive intelligence. There are already ways for companies with good resources to anonymize their traffic, this just brings it down to the level where small companies can start trawling around their competitor’s sites without the fear they’ll be sniffed. But the obvious extension of such a democratic technology is its potential to undermine many of the tools used to prevent click fraud. If an entire network of anonymous tunnels is available for obscuring traffic, and proxy applications can strip computer identification data, then generating malicious traffic to trip up a competitor’s metrics or drive up their pay-for-performance budget can’t be far behind.

The interesting question to consider is how some of your customer’s behavior may start looking more and more like the behavior of malicious competitors–or, to be more precise, won’t look like anything at all–and what, as a marketer, you’ll need to do to make sense of such a data shadow. What if your most valuable prospects are inclined to become invisible? Would you notice the trend?

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