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I found this nifty little phone app that does a single thing and does it well. You can scan QR codes with it, and it decodes the information and generates several links - to amazon, ebay, target, etc - where you can find out more information about (and potentially purchase) the product you scanned.

It's quick, requests minimal permissions, doesn't crash... I liked it so much I purchased the ad-free version for a whopping $2.99. What caught me a little off-guard was noticing that when I selected a link to view the product, I'd briefly see my browser visit links that had linksynergy or rover.ebay.com in the address, and then it'd change to the final url at Amazon or eBay. Those are affiliate
referral links, and something about it was a little off-putting. I'd already paid for the app - I was no longer getting something for nothing - so why was it using my data to generate more revenue?

One of the earliest memories I have of paying for a service and wondering what exactly that got you was when I was just a kid. We always had "regular" tv at home - maybe 8 channels over the air waves - and the normal experience was about 10 minutes of viewing time and an insufferable 2 minutes of commercials. Or popcorn-popping, bathroom-break time as the case may be. Then my grandparents got cable. I'd heard of it, but from what little I knew I just figured it was more channels and no commercials. I was half right.

I was surprised when my parents would visit and turn on a cartoon for us kids - there were still commercials! What gives? Thinking back, the payment went towards better programming (hah), more programming (doubtless), a clearer picture and physical cable lines, etc etc. But the ads were a cash-cow that was just too much to give up. Or maybe the cost would've had to been tenfold without them.

Once I noticed the referral links, I emailed the developer for an explanation and suggested he add a disclosure somewhere, then prepared for a good excuse. To his credit, he was completely transparent about it, and even offered a refund. He explained that the affiliate links helped support (more like incentivize) further development, and then provided a way to add "custom" store links that would effectively circumvent his affiliate links. He also promised to add "some explanations to our privacy policy about affiliates", but as his site is in Russian and I couldn't find any privacy policy or similar after a google translation, I couldn't confirm it.

On one hand, this isn't any different than any other service we use. Imagine signing up for a free music service like pandora or spotify, or a free coupon site like groupon, or even a free social media site (take your pick). You enjoy the music, the coupons, the cat videos, but something (someone) has to pay for it right? It's your data. Your music preferences, your shopping habits, your interactions with friends and ads and promoted posts and whatnot.

Everyone's selling our data and habits for a profit. We're used to it, we've accepted it, we rarely even think about it. An upfront disclosure would be nice, but it's usually either buried in 80 pages of "terms and conditions" or it comes out later when someone blows a whistle. We might be shocked, but life moves on. Welcome to the future.

On the other hand, this isn't a free service for me. I paid for it. As it turns out, my $3 paid for an improved experience (like the clearer picture quality and improved channel selection my grandparents bought), but it didn't pay for ongoing development. I wonder, would a $3 (or $20) per month subscription be enough to not sell my data? Or like the cash-cow that is modern advertising, would the temptation to sell my habits for a few extra bucks on the side still be too great?

Is enough ever really enough? Does it even matter anymore?

And if you want to read an interesting article about companies analyzing your habits and data for revenue opportunites, check out How Companies Learn Your Secrets. It's long - at the very least, skip to the part about Target's coupon algorithm that could predict a woman was pregnant based on shopping habits, and how they took advantage of it without creeping anyone out. Fascinating stuff.


Grant Winney

I write when I've got something to share - a personal project, a solution to a difficult problem, or just an idea. We learn by doing and sharing. We've all got something to contribute.

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