Google’s new privacy policy takes effect on March 1. It allows them to collect and consolidate user data from all its web properties — Search, Gmail, YouTube, Picasa, Maps and about 50 other Google services. You can’t opt out.

Google has always collected this data at its individual sites. Now it will combine them to get a fuller profile of each of us. Why? It’s all about the green. The more Google knows about you, the more money it makes with targeted ads. Or, in Googletalk, it can provide “a simpler, more intuitive Google experience.”

What’s privacy worth?

This year’s Art Basel Miami Beach included an installation that prompted attendees to weigh the cost of privacy. Branger Brize set up a charging station, but you could use it only if you agreed to the Terms of Use giving them license to download and use the photos stored on your phone in a digital art projection at the exhibition. Hmm, dead phone or public embarrassment?

Forrester Research found that people are more informed about privacy, distinguishing between extremely sensitive information and other data. 44% of consumers surveyed said they hadn’t completed an online transaction because of something they read in a privacy policy. And it is generational, young people are more open and willing to give up their information in exchange for discounts. Naivety or savvy consumerism?

This is our new reality: weighing how much privacy we’ll give up to use a service or make a purchase. We tolerate Facebook’s exploitation of our data because we give it up in exchange for using their platform. We value the return on our data: access to social networks, customization, recommendations, and ultimately, better products and services.

Segment of one
Privacy by Alan Cleaver (Flickr)
Because of Amazon, we’re used to “knowing” websites. Businesses provide targeted recommendations and advertisements, and follow us from site to site, offering a discount or messaging about related products. In the business world, we’re already a segment of one. How is the association world doing on segmentation?

Will members’ expectations change? Will they expect associations to know them better and offer customized messaging and services? 
Don’t break my trust

Associations have an advantage: trust. People get nervous and tight with data when trust erodes. Recently it was revealed that social network Path uploaded user address books without permission. Path said it did it to make it easy for users to find and connect to their friends. When asked why that wasn’t an opt-in, they said uploading without permission is “industry best practice.”

We expect social networks to use the data we share online, but we expect them to be up front about it. Any practice that breaks trust is not a best practice.

Most of us, including your members, don’t always read Terms of Service thoroughly, so make sure your policy is easily accessible and clear. On your website and blog privacy pages, FAQ and help pages, explain how and why you use member data and how it benefits them.

The public/private balance

As we share more layers of our life, each layer revealed seems benign –check ins, likes, tweets, browsing history and purchases. But layered with health records, groceries purchased with loyalty cards and financial information, our data provides a more personal profile than we might like.

Will we continue to share our lives and data this way? Will there be a backlash when we realize the implications? Implications like online behavioral pricing when retailers use your online data against you by raising prices on the products you seem to want the most. Jeff Jarvis believes any restrictions on public sharing will dampen new ideas and innovation.

There’s a new digital lifestyle divide between those whom Alexandra Samuel calls “digital utopians” and “digital skeptics.” Each of us must decide how much of our life to live publicly online and how much in private.

Your staff and members wrestle with this too. The best approach is to respect the choices they make, but to also provide guidance on handling uncomfortable online situations (for example, whether to “friend” a member), using privacy settings, and behaving appropriately and safely online. Be a trusted coach: show the pros and cons of each digital lifestyle so they can make educated choices instead of relying on myths and unfounded fears.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer, blogger and copywriter, and a bit of a digital utopian.