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Proximity Marketing: Often Creepy, but It Doesn’t Have to Be.

October 26, 2017

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

Imagine you’re out shopping one Saturday afternoon. You walk into a department store and see a big sign that reads, “Get our app and save!” You love a good deal so you scan the QR code and select “download.” You scroll through a user agreement with about 10,000 words of legalese and click “agree.” Then you open the app and skim through a list of coupons, bookmark one or two and proceed through the store. You spend a few minutes browsing the shoe department and try on a pair. They don’t fit well and you end up leaving the store without making any purchases.

As you walk down the street later, your phone is abuzz with notifications you’ve never received before: a constant stream of ads from each store you pass. You wonder how they’re reaching you, until you realize the department store app is still running — it must connect to other stores.

That night at home, you get an email from the department store. “Still thinking about those shoes?” it asks. “Buy them now!” And below is a form with your name, address and credit card information already filled out.

Proximity marketing — location-based direct marketing in which a business or other organization sends offers, promotions, alerts or other messages to a person’s smartphone based on the device’s location — is annoying, creepy and downright invasive in this story. But it doesn’t have to be. When implemented ethically, proximity marketing can provide worthwhile benefits to marketers and consumers alike.

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Snapchat: A Powerful Tool for Gathering and Distributing News

January 26, 2017
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

To those who think Snapchat is just for silly selfies: Think again.

Originally an app for sending photos and short videos (“snaps”) that permanently disappear after being viewed, the tool has evolved considerably since its 2011 launch.

Here’s a quick synopsis: In 2013, the company created “Snapchat Stories,” a feature that lets users stitch together multiple snaps that can be viewed an unlimited number of times in a span of 24 hours. In 2014, it added “Our Stories” (now called “Live Stories”), enabling people at events to submit their snaps to a common story curated by Snapchat itself. And in January 2015, Snapchat introduced “Discover,” a channel for media companies to push content to the app’s users, which now add up to over 150 million daily — more than Twitter, though a far cry from Facebook. Those audiences are not just teenagers and college students. At a conference in February 2016, Snapchat said more than half of its new users are over the age of 25.

While many other changes have marked the app’s short history (2014 also brought “geofilters,” which stamp a time or place on a snap, and “lenses,” which overlay masks on selfies), but it is the “Stories” and “Discover” features that have piqued the interest of journalists and media companies most.

Indeed, the New York Times published more than a dozen articles about Snapchat and its parent company, Snap, Inc., this past November and December. “If you secretly harbor the idea that Snapchat is frivolous or somehow a fad, it’s time to re-examine your certainties,” wrote the New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo. “In fact, in various large and small ways, Snap has quietly become one of the world’s most innovative and influential consumer technology companies.”

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Mobile Payment Apps and the Price of Convenience

April 4, 2015

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

Wallets will be a relic of the past if the forces behind mobile payment apps have their way. Services like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Google Wallet, and seemingly countless others aim to nullify the need for physical credit and debit cards – the payment systems that made cash and checks obsolete just a couple of decades ago.

On the surface, paying for things with your phone seems convenient, but not absolutely necessary. It’s not really a hassle to pull out a credit card while waiting in line at the grocery store. But the smartphone already encompasses so many aspects of everyday life. Why not consolidate one more feature onto it?

Let’s walk through a hypothetical day: You’re out for a run in the morning, listening to music via headphones attached to the phone strapped to your bicep. You stop to purchase a cold water bottle at a convenience store. No need to store a card or cash in your waistband or tucked in your shoe. Tapping the phone against an electromagnetic reader at the register completes the purchase. Later, at work, you owe a coworker $20, but have no cash. But you don’t have to find an ATM during lunch: Instead, you send the money over Venmo, an app that’s hooked to your bank account. The colleague receives the payment instantly. That night, you buy your mom a birthday present from an online store. Instead of fishing out your credit card to type in its number, expiration date, and so on, you click one button that’s already hooked to your Google Wallet account. Done.

Acknowledging the potential convenience of mobile payments is relatively easy: They’re fast and they prevent you from having to carry around as much stuff. But there are ethical issues the industry needs to resolve before consumers will completely accept the concept, notably those related to accessibility and privacy: First, how easy is it to use these apps in the real world? Do they work anywhere, for anyone with any phone? Second, how do the companies behind these apps protect consumers’ private payment-related data? And how are they using that data for their own purposes? Read more…

Google Glass: Flawed Technology or Flawed Ethics?

February 18, 2015

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

On January 15, Google announced that it was discontinuing sales of Google Glass. The wearable computer on an eyeglass frame hailed and harangued by enthusiasts and critics alike during its short existence is on hold indefinitely.

On a timeline, Google Glass doesn’t fill much space: In 2010, it became the first of many projects housed in Google X Lab, a secret experimental space for researchers to develop ideas. In April 2012, the company made Glass a Google+ account and posted a conceptual video, effectively introducing the product to the world. That June, Google showed it off at a conference in San Francisco during a demonstration that included skydivers and stunt bikers wearing the device.

Afterward, Google allowed conference attendees to preorder the Glass “Explorer” edition for $1,500. About 2,000 people did, though they didn’t start to receive the toy until April 2013. In May of that year, 8,000 members of the public who won the opportunity to buy Glass through Google’s #ifihadglass contest also received it. A year later, in May 2014, Google opened the Explorer Program up to everyone that could afford the price tag.

In the end, Glass was available to anyone who wanted it for only eight months. But during its brief lifespan, the product permeated society in remarkable ways. It was simultaneously an intriguing vision of the future, a derided symbol of elitism, and a controversial topic of ethical debate.

In a blog post, Google wrote that the Glass Explorer Program closed so that the company “can focus on what’s coming next” and promised “you’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready.”

The phrase “when they’re ready” speaks the loudest when considering the downfall of the first iteration of Glass: Was it ready? Or was the product released too soon?

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Yik Yak’s Growing Pains

December 7, 2014
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

If Facebook is the king of social networks and Twitter the queen, then Yik Yak is Twitter’s immature younger sibling – ambitious, but with no hope for a seat at the throne.

Like Twitter, users of Yik Yak post and view very short messages: 200-character “Yaks” instead of 140-character “Tweets.” Users can reply to posts and even “upvote” or “downvote” posts they like or don’t like – a feature likely inspired by its cousin Reddit. Yik Yak, however, is a mobile app with no functionality as a website. But that’s not the only distinction from its relatives.

First, Yik Yak is location-based. Users write posts and reply to those from others within a 10-mile radius. They can also drop a pin elsewhere on a map and “peek” at Yaks within a 1.5-mile radius of the pin. However, they can only post to their own location.

Second, Yik Yak is anonymous. There are no usernames, passwords or profiles. People sign up with their cell phone numbers and provide no other personal information. Users don’t collect followers or friends – all their posts are automatically available to everyone.

Third, right now Yik Yak has a specific audience: college students. While many over the age of 25 have not even heard of the app – let alone used it – it has spread to more than 1,000 college campuses since its launch in November of 2013.

For that reason, the live feeds tend to revolve around sex, drinking, studying, and dorm life. Some are funny, others sad. Many are profane or mundane.

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Social Media Strategies for Complaining

July 1, 2014
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

It’s a universal experience: You need to contact a business to dispute a bill, to ask a question or to grumble about a faulty product or poor service. So you dial a 1-800 number and listen to a recorded message: press “1” for this, press “2” for that. You wait on hold and try to tune out the smooth jazz background music as minutes tick by. Finally, someone picks up. But you’re transferred, disconnected or told to leave a message. The rigmarole goes on.

It doesn’t always happen that way. But frustrated consumers remember when it does, and they choose to take faster, more public routes to reach businesses: They log on to social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Cable guy doesn’t show up? Google the company’s Twitter handle or Facebook page and type away.

There are some wild success stories: One woman spent a year trying to get a charge—a whopping $1,126 for a 2-inch bandage—removed from a hospital bill over the phone, as reported in a feature by WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Then she posted her ordeal on the hospital’s Facebook page. Voila! Her account was credited by the next morning.

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Mr. Brightside’s Watching You

April 8, 2014
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Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

In the old days, suspicious spouses who wanted to keep tabs on their partners had limited options. They could rifle through pockets for cryptic receipts, check shirt collars for lipstick stains or hire private investigators to stake out seedy motels.

Today jealous lovers have a lot more strategies at their disposal. They can scroll through unmanned cellphones for call logs and text messages. They can sneak onto Facebook and email accounts.

And for the truly neurotic, highly distrustful types, there are products like mSpy to do the dirty work. The “mobile monitoring software solution” is a smartphone application that logs all of a user’s activity. It records calls, texts, emails, messages from other apps, GPS locations, website history, calendar events, address book contacts, photos, videos and every keystroke made. The software can even be set up for bugging to record conversations that go on in the phone’s presence.

This is how it works: Paranoid boyfriend buys a subscription to the app (the “premium” package costs $69.99 for one month, though rates are cheaper if you commit to a longer duration). Then he installs it on his girlfriend’s phone when she’s not looking. If that’s too tricky to pull off, the boyfriend can buy a phone preloaded with the app and give it to his girlfriend as an anniversary present. After that, the boyfriend simply logs into his online account, where he can view all of his beloved’s activity.

So how does mSpy rationalize this ethically murky product? Read more…