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08/18/2005 Archived Entry: "Plaxo: A rant"

PLAXO: A RANT. I got Plaxoed yesterday. That makes me mad. It also reminds me (once again) of how the Internet has increased the amount of annoyance and potential harm that can come from someone being careless about other people's privacy.

Plaxo, as you may know, is an online service that promises to help you manage you electronic address book. This "help" begins when you upload the entire contents of your address book: names; addresses; birthdays; home, work, and cell phone numbers (including unlisted ones) to Plaxo's database.

Now, you'd think that that single sentence right there would be enough to tell any sensible, privacy-loving libertarian person DO NOT USE PLAXO. But no. A person I barely know, who has (thank heaven) minimal contact info for me for a specific business purpose, Plaxified me. Next thing I know I'm getting an email from Plaxo inviting me to update my data by filling in a whole bunch more personal info.

Stop a second and go back ten years. Back then I gave my unlisted phone number to a person I barely knew, again for a specific business purpose. Within two weeks he had turned me over to the infamous (and fortunately short-lived) MCI "Friends and Family" telemarketing program. This was the program whereby people were promised cheaper long-distance rates for themselves and their "lucky" acquaintances if the acquaintances also signed up.

From the moment I received the first unwelcome call from MCI to the day I was able to get them to quit was about three months. And the process involved certified letters and threats of lawyers. The big hangup was that, although MCI was perfectly willing to put me ON a list, having only my name and phone number, they absolutely refused to take me OFF the list unless I provided my home address, the billing name on the account, and other personal information. (I can't remember whether they wanted my social security number or not; but they were very snoopy.)

A casual act by an outsider puts you IN. But you can't get OUT.

Now comes Plaxo. Which boasts of having five million "users" but one billion "connections." But what if you don't want to BE an unconsenting "connection"?

Same thing. A casual act by an outsider puts you IN Plaxo. But Plaxo won't take you OUT. What? Is this the New American Way or something?

Oh, they'll let you opt out of receiving email requests to update your info. But the only way you can actually get out of their database is if the person who puts you in removes you from his address book.

But don't worry. Plaxo CARES about PRIVACY. Their privacy statement begins: "At Plaxo, we believe that privacy is more than just a legal document -- it is the foundation on which we built our company." Then they go on with what is basically a bunch of weasel words. It's all about the privacy of the people blew your privacy in the first place by entering the data!

They claim not to sell the data. But anybody who trusts a company whose sole reason for existance is data-gathering is nuts. And speaking of bogus privacy, I especially love this warm-fuzzy provision. Note that if they DO decide to sell data, they'll check with the member first. NOT with the victi ... er, "contact" whose information is to be sold. Only with the person who cared so little about privacy that he Plaxoed you in the first place!

Even if Plaxo were honest, which I doubt, it's just a stupid idea to have your personal info in unneeded databases. And it's a far, far, far stupider idea to create databases for the very purpose of encouraging third parties to violate others' privacy.

Fortunately, if you get Plaxoed, there are a few things you can do.

I'm not claiming any harm has come to me from being Plaxoed -- other than the harm of having to waste my time and energy combatting yet another privacy slip committed by yet another careless libertarian.

But it's obvious that Plaxo is a catastrophe waiting to happen. Will Plaxo databases be hacked? Will the company turn information over to gummint? Will they change their already weaselly privacy policy and start selling information? Will they do some dumb thing like Bank of American did and transport the data in a way that makes it available to thieves? We already know they encourage and allow members to swap data in their address books -- meaning once you've been Plaxoed, you have no idea which other Plaxo members may soon have you in their grasp. Plaxo is extensively used by sales people and such who are hungry for marketing contacts. Plaxo is therefore a big ocean full of sharks, all poised to devour your privacy without caring how much their nasty ugly teeth hurt you.

Posted by Claire @ 10:01 AM CST

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