Privacy tightrope.

After a teenage girl from Minnesota recently shopped at Target, Target evaluated her purchases, surmised she was pregnant and sent her coupons that only an expectant mother might need. The girl hadn’t mentioned her pregnancy to her parents yet, who found out when her father intercepted her mail.

Brian SantoTargeted advertising and the violation of privacy – this remained a big story for days, but it’s hard to know what to make of the reaction. Privacy obviously must still have some value among some people, given how many people think Target went over the line.

At the same time, so very many consumers have already agreed to let at least one merchant track their activity in exchange for some paltry token – often a gift card or some coupons. The price for which most people will give up at least some of their privacy forever is demonstrated to be about $25, give or take a few dollars.

That’s assuming we actually have any privacy left to sell.

Way back in 1999, Sun founder Scott McNealy announced, “You have no privacy; get over it.” At the time, even those who thought he wasn’t correct feared he soon enough would be.

“Interestingly enough,” McNealy observed in a speech last year, “most of the new startups here in the Valley are all about invading your privacy. Figuring out how to profile you even more precisely than even you know. So using the cloud to invade your privacy tends to be the number one venture start-up.”

And who’s half in the cloud and half out? MVPDs.

Interestingly enough, MVPDs are among the most cautious corporations when it comes to privacy. In all the targeted advertising schemes I’m aware of in the cable business, customer information is always protected, usually by anonymizing it. That the database exists at all is problematic, but if McNealy is right about anything, it’s that that battle is lost forever.

I’m of a generation that didn’t start out under constant surveillance by salesman, and those who object most to being stalked for commercial purposes tend to be my contemporaries. More recent generations are considered to be more marketing savvy and appear inured to the lack of privacy.

On the other hand, the younger you are, the more cavalier you tend to be about risk. What happens if these supposedly marketing-savvy people come to the position that that privacy stuff is important after all?

So maybe it’s wise that MVPDs continue to proceed with caution.