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Are private conversations in online forums really private?

posted Nov 9, 2010, 6:26 AM by Jackie Lyndon   [ updated Nov 9, 2010, 6:46 AM ]

Imagine you have a serious mental disorder, say you’ve recently been diagnosed bipolar, and at the suggestion of your doctor you’re reaching out to others in health-oriented online chat rooms for support and to learn about other’s experiences. You’ve connected with several people who can relate to what you’re going through, and have even felt safe enough to share your own experiences and the medication you’re taking when suddenly you detect suspicious activity in the room. What’s going on? Who’s in here with us? Wasn’t this supposed to be a safe, private place to talk? Not so much.


According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, the incidence of “scrapping”—where an individual with sophisticated software can break-in to online forums and virtually copy everything that’s being said—is on the rise. In this specific incident, the forum was and the perpetrator was none other than Nielsen Co., the New York-based media-research firm. From Nielsen’s perspective, it was simply conducting market research on one of the target audiences for its pharma clients; data that it will turn around and sell for a premium price. But from the perspective of the individuals who shared their most carefully-guarded secrets in what they thought was a safe environment, it was an act of violation.


Gathering personal information of this sort is certainly critical to pharma companies, who are continually on the lookout for fresh insights on what their customers and potential customers think, feel and need. But there are myriad other ways to get this information that don’t involve breach of trust and breaking-in to private conversations to eavesdrop and record them. Online surveys, focus groups and personal interviews are just a few of the many alternatives. As well, sites like do sell their patient info, after it has been scrubbed to ensure anonymity. So what gives, Nielsen? In my opinion, this is yet another scary but true example of ethical misconduct in the realm of digital marketing. With so much technology at their fingertips, marketers must vigilantly heed this simple caveat: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.


To read the full article, click here.