If you have ever shopped online you know the drill. In order to make a purchase, not only do you have to provide the merchant your credit card information, but also personal information such as your telephone number, physical address, email address, etc. The next thing that happens is that along with your purchase arriving so does a barrage of email solicitations, phone calls (claiming a pre-existing relationship), spam and a host of other uninvited interactions.
As you will see in what follows, Albine, a company dedicated to providing average folks simple tools and services to control how personal information is collected, stored, shared and sold, has an answer. Providers of popular solutions such as DoNotTrackeMe, designed to stop companies and others literally from tracking your online behavior, and DeleteMe, which enables users to delete their profiles and information from leading social media and other sites, Albine has introduced MaskMe. This is a tool designed to literally mask your personal information from snooping merchants to give your inbox a rest, along with peace of mind.
Data mining versus privacy
Unfortunately, handing over of personal information in exchange for data services has become the ecommerce version (pardon the pun) of the new social contract. It is the coin of the realm. We receive something for free, the convenience of online shopping, and in return, the electronic universe gets to mine that data in the continuing quest of retailers, partners and technology providers to more perfectly target us of their products and services. This is what decades ago futurist Alvin Toffler called, “the market of one.” The more pejorative term is “e-profiling.”
MaskMe is aimed at creating a trusted middleman capability that puts Albine between you, your personal information and merchants so you don’t have to disclose to merchants anything more than they will get paid. It is a browser add-on and mobile app that allows us to use the Web (in the beta release with a MasterCard credit card) without disclosing real personal information to data miners, whether they are well-intentioned and just want to “provide a more personal service” or have malicious intent.
MaskMe is a freemium add-on for Firefox and Chrome that creates and manages dummy accounts for your e-mail address, phone number, credit card, and Web site log-ins. It enables the user to have real and real-time control over the protection of their personal information, e.g., their digital identities. Upgrading to a $5 per month premium service.
In simple terms, when you shop online, MaskMe creates an alias of your personal information that is then forwarded to your real account.
Image via Abline
Each masked transaction is billed separately and shows up on your credit card statement as a charge from Albine.
The company has easy-to-understand explanations as to how MaskMe works and links on the blog describing the features and functionality.
The story here is twofold: user control, and the company’s commitment to never sell your data to another party (vendors supplying Albine services are exposed to data only for the purpose of making the service work). In fact, the company uses strong encryption to prevent MaskMe from itself being hacked and allows users to easily and quickly remediate risks if it appears something improper is taking place.
Plus, it does not get in the way of normal ecommerce. It literally and figuratively is an “honest broker” of personal information. This means it does not cause problems with refunds and returns. It just keeps prying eyes from obtaining more than they really need to know about you in order to sell you something.
In its beta implementation which is over-subscribed the initial offering is Masked Emails. The premium service will include:
Whether MaskMe is disruptive or not is problematic. Since the dawn of ecommerce, advertisers have wanted to know everything about us, and the big data era has given them tools to feed the beast. Anything that diminishes the ability for sellers to learn as much as possible about buyers thus is going to face stiff headwinds.
That said, however, as the headlines are demonstrating, there is the beginning of a strong pushback from consumers as to what they are willing to give up in terms of their personal information and privacy in exchange for what they perceive as valuable. The assumption, as some have argued, that “PRIVACY IS DEAD!” may turn out to be a case of the experts being premature in their pronouncements.
There has always been an interesting opportunity for entities to be trusted brokers of personal information. In fact, in the name of disclosure, I was affiliated with a start-up many years ago, ironically whose roots were from a clever engineer from MIT just like the people who started Albine, that wanted to provide advertisers with anonymous profiles of people based on the capturing of their surfing behavior and selling this to advertisers in exchange for targeted advertising based on those profiles.
What was missing from that formulation was user control which undermined trust. MaskMe’s user-centric nature is an interesting workaround. It turns out the value of not being bothered is gaining traction. The right to privacy, vendor transparency and user control (opt-out as default rather than opt-in) is picking up steam particularly in Europe. Clearly there is a market for entities that provide nearly frictionless transactional capability with personal information protection. MaskMe is an interesting model in this space, and clearly is something to watch. You can be sure it has merchants’ attention, as well as that of Google, Facebook and Amazon, just to name a few of the usual suspects.
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