If you use StickK will you get StuckK?

[UPDATE: After this post was published, Stickk.com revised its privacy policies and no longer reserves the right to share users' personal information in objectionable ways. -- editors.]

It's that time of year again when I look down and think: "My God, I can't believe how much weight I gained over the holidays. I'm so stuffed I should have a meat thermometer sticking out of my ribs."

But this year, in addition to renewing our gym membership and feeding the last of the Christmas cookies to the dogs, my wife and I signed with a web site called StickK.com.

As the name implies, StickK is there to help you stick(K) to your New Year's resolutions or any other goal you want to achieve, like quitting smoking or watching less TV. (And if you're wondering, yes, this was my wife's idea.) They do it by literally making you pay for your transgressions.

Launched by Yale profs Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres and staffed by a bunch of recently matriculated Yalies, StickK is both fiendishly clever and a bit disturbing. More on the latter in a moment. First, a bit about how it works.

You start by registering for the site and choosing whether to set up an ongoing or a one-shot contract. Pick a category for your goal (say, self improvement or environmentalism), what you want to commit to, and when your contract will end.

Here's the interesting part: You decide whether to put money on your goal and where you want that money to go. If you miss your goal, you pay that money to either a charity, a friend or foe, or an "anti-charity" -- some cause you truly can't stand, like a pro-gun control organization or the NRA, for example.

stickk_anti_charity_-_cropped.jpg

Let's say I've resolved to lose 20 pounds by the middle of May, and I've wagered $10 a week. StickK calculates I need to lose about a pound a week. So my goal for next week is to be one pound lighter. Every week I report back on my progress. If I don't make my goal, $10 comes out of my pocket. (StickK takes a credit card number as part of the commitment process.)

To keep myself honest, I can assign a "referee" -- a third party who has to weigh in (so to speak) and verify I'm not lying. If I simply fail to report, I also get charged.

If I choose to, I can post photos and videos, share my "commitments" with other StickK users, gather supporters who will cheer me on, join communities of other folks with similar goals, and so on. (You can also choose to keep this information out of the public eye.) So StickK is essentially a social network built around guilt.

Now for the disturbing bits. I have a few problems with StickK's terms of use and its privacy policy. For example, the TOU states that you own any photos or videos you post on the site, but StickK reserves the right to do whatever they want with them, for any purpose, for as long as they want. (Caveat: I am not a lawyer, but that's how I read their contract.) That goes well beyond the terms for photo and video-sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want photos of Fat Dan showing up in advertisements for StickK. I'm just sayin'.

Worse, there's some odd language in StickK's privacy policy I'm not sure how to interpret. On one hand, the policy states that StickK will "neither rent nor sell your personal information to anyone and that we will share your personal information only as described below." Then six paragraphs below it says this:

With Your Consent: Except as noted above, we will contact you when your personal information is shared with third parties or used for a purpose incompatible with the purpose(s) for which it was originally collected, and you will be able to opt out to prevent the sharing of this information.

First, using personally identifiable information for any purpose other than the original intention is a privacy violation, any way you slice it. The policy also never says how much notice StickK intends to give or how they intend to notify people. Do I get an email with 48 hours to respond? And what happens if that email goes into my spam folder by accident?

I asked StickK to please clarify these policies. I got back a response that said, basically, other Web sites do this kind of thing, so we're doing it too. Here's a quote from Sam Espinosa on The StickK Team:

We have not made any effort, nor do we have any desire to, share our users' personally identifiable information. We're a young company and in creating our privacy policy we reviewed several other companies' policies; we believe that this sort of catch-all language is used commonly. Though we have not done so and do not plan to do so, we would provide notice and ample opportunity to opt-out via email.

I don't think StickK has evil intent. But this is a bad privacy policy. At the very least this should be an opt in, which would mean they can't share my information unless I expressly say they can. That way, if I miss or ignore the notification, my privacy is still protected.

Because StickK poses a far greater privacy risk than most other social Web sites. Imagine a site where you admit your worst failings: you're overweight, you can't stop smoking or watching TV, or maybe you're secretly a drug addict or a shoplifter. The possibilities are endless. Now imagine that site suddenly decides to share this information with other parties - like, say, a firm that does background checks for employers -- and your only protection is an email you may or may not see. Wouldn't that make you nervous? It makes me nervous.

I'll see if StickK helps me drop a few pounds. For now, though, I'm not sharing more than the bare minimum amount of information necessary to achieve that.

Am I being paranoid? Maybe. I'm happy to lose a little weight. But I'd rather not lose what's left of my privacy along with it.

Dan Tynan promises to be leaner and meaner for 2009. When he's not not eating carbs, he tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

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