Understanding the Risk
It’s no secret that the things we do and say online leave behind trails of personal information. But many Americans are not clear just how systematically their online behaviors are being tracked and recorded by modern advertising networks.
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There is a lot of money to be made from watching what consumers do online, and what it says about who they are, and there are plenty of companies that will pay big for this information.
What does this threat to privacy online actually look like? Driven by the pursuit of profits, companies are building a massive, sophisticated and far-reaching machinery to collect information about you. That machinery includes:
- Cookies. A cookie is a file that a website can put on a user’s computer when the user visits it so that when the user returns, or visits another affiliated site, it remembers certain information about the user. Cookies are often used for legitimate purposes, such as passwords or shopping-cart contents. But as online marketing has grown more sophisticated, cookies have too. Advertisers and aggregators modified cookies to track people’s web page visits, searches, online purchases, videos watched, posts on social networking sites, and other online activity that one might expect to stay private.
- Flash cookies. The Adobe Flash player plug-in program is widely used as an add-on to browsers for displaying online animations. Flash can create its own, more hidden cookies, which are often used by trackers to resurrect a regular cookie that a user had detected and deleted.
- Beacons. Perhaps the most aggressive form of tracking is the beacon. Also known as “web bugs,” beacons are often used by sites that hire third party services to monitor user actions. A beacon is a tiny image embedded in a web page by another site, which reports back to that site (often, a tracking company) when that page is viewed. These devices can track a user's movements extremely closely, even monitoring keystrokes on a page or movements by a user’s mouse.
A MOSAIC ABOUT YOUR LIFE
Technologies such as the ones described above allow online advertising networks to paint an alarmingly detailed portrait about an individual’s online activity by linking together visits to various web pages and other online activities. For example, it is possible to know that a person who read a newspaper article on one site is the same person who bought some music on another site, and posted a comment at a third site.
For advertisers, this information is extremely valuable. As targeted ads become increasingly profitable, behavioral marketers are growing more ambitious and seeking to form an even more complete picture of unsuspecting citizens. In fact, a study by the Wall Street Journal found that the nation’s 50 top websites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology on user’s computers, usually with no warning.
While any one particular website may have little information about an individual, it is possible for a large number of these “data points” to be aggregated over time in an extremely detailed fashion, painting a shockingly detailed mosaic about an individual based on online activity alone. One tracking company, for example, tells advertisers it can predict a user's age, zip code, and gender, as well as an estimate of a user’s income, marital status, family status and home ownership status.
These tools are:
- Personally identifiable. Through Internet data trails, advertisers are able to glean one’s name, address, and other personally identifying information. The more detailed the information about an individual, the more it will be to companies, which provides a strong incentive to track every click an Internet user makes.
- Highly advanced. The Wall Street Journal found that tracking technology has become so advanced and covert that in some cases, even the website owner – including companies as large as Microsoft – are not of its presence. If these technologies have become so surreptitious as to slip past sophisticated website owners, is it any surprise that the average user doesn’t know about all this spying, or how to stop it?
- Combinable with offline data. Online and offline data companies are combining forces to get an even more detailed profile of consumers, posing a further threat to privacy. Online behavioral data can be combined with attitudinal research and linked with offline databases to paint an even more detailed picture of an individual.
- Shareable beyond the Internet. Worst of all, these online profiles do not stay with the advertisers. They are merged with "offline content," namely the information that advertisers, background check companies and data aggregators have been collecting on us for years. All of these companies have contracts with employers and the government. One company boasts it is “the silent partner to municipal, county, state, and federal justice agencies who access our databases every day to locate subjects, develop background information, secure information from a cellular or unlisted number, and much more.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Private companies are tracking as many of our movements as they can online, selling that information to other companies who in turn share it with law enforcement and the government. The technology they use to do this tracking is advancing rapidly and has become highly sophisticated, and individuals have little chance of keeping abreast of what is taking place when they surf, let alone taking the complex steps necessary to prevent this spying.
But Americans shouldn’t have to choose between new technology and keeping their personal information private. Protections for online privacy are justified and necessary, and the government must help draw boundaries to ensure that Americans’ privacy stays intact in the Digital Age.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
The good news is that reasonable and workable solutions exist for grappling with the problems of excessive data collection. In the same way that other industries are bound by basic privacy principles to protect consumer information, the government should enforce similar principles with regard to Internet privacy.
For example, Internet should have clear notice about the data collection practices involving their information, and data collectors must explain why particular information is needed and be held accountable for how the information is used. Above all, users should be able to control what is shared and what is kept private. One way of achieving this would be though a “Do Not Track” option, which would give consumers a universal way to opt-out of tracking, much like the popular "Do Not Call" registry that allows people to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls today.
Unless the government acts quickly to rein in the unchecked collection of online data, we may end up with a complete surveillance state online – one that is not built by the government, ironically, but by businesses seeking marketing information. Such a scenario has alarming implications for Internet users and the Internet itself, as constant tracking and surveillance chills the freedom and participation that makes the Internet the useful and important medium it is today.