Opinion: How do you know?


Information about what we might like, or not, is being collected and sold all around us. In fact, if we are reading this article online right now, chances are that someone, somewhere, is taking note. Certainly, it is not all nefarious. Some are legitimate retailers attempting to bring to us messages that may be more likely to be of interest. But for just as many others, our presumed preferences are being bought and sold in back-alley marketplaces deeply hidden from our view. Who knows what about us? Why don’t they tell us how they got our information and from whom?

Ask a marketer how they came to know your telephone number or email address and they are as likely to hang up as they are to answer. In most cases, the front-line workers are not informed of how our contact information was collected. Plausible deniability is important in this game. In a day, not that long ago, if someone reached out by name, it was a safe assumption that they either knew us directly or knew someone who did. The social contract required that their interactions with us be predicated upon a connection to another person. If the newly introduced individual or organization acted badly, it would reflect poorly on the person making the introduction. The axiom played, “It is not what you know but who you know.”

Today, our inboxes are filled with emails from supposed long-lost friends. “Hey, insert name here, you must have missed responding to my last email, but I hope you and your terrific spouse, insert name here, will get back to me.” The problem is that it is all fake. There is no previous contact. There is no relationship. It seems that today it is, “What you know, not who you know.”