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The Internet is Watching You

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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December 1, 2009

Your internet usage is being monitored. There is big money in behavioral advertising and even the government is paying for the privilege of knowing what sites you are visiting.

How Behavioral Advertising Works

Cookies — along with being delicious treats — are one of the primary web tracking technology devices data brokers use to collect information on consumers. Long ago, in a simpler time, advertisements were targeted to a website. A visit to a blog, for example, would expose a web surfer to ads for shoes, energy bars, and other running aids. Times have changed, advertisers have grown cunning, and now when you visit some sites advertisers place a cookie on your machine; a cookie that will let that advertiser identify you and record any personal information you disclose on the site.

Although one website may collect fairly limited information about you, behavioral marketers combine information gathered from myriad sites that have been tracking your habits through cookies for years. Over time your name and address, lists of web pages you have visited, searches you have conducted, purchases you’ve made online, videos you have watched, notes you’ve posted to social network sites, and much, much more are collected, correlated, saved and studied. These marketers are painting a detailed picture of your life and then selling it to the highest bidder.

Does this make you uncomfortable? It should.

There is no confidentiality for American consumers on the Internet and no one is going to notify you when your personal details are sold to a third party. To the contrary, database companies usually forbid their clients from telling you where the information was gathered and what was collected. Say you visit a site that discusses depression, STDs or child abuse. Without any context, these details will be attached to your profile that is sold to advertisers or possibly even government officials. Due to a complete lack of transparency, there is no way for you to correct any misinformation. Sadly, accuracy is less the goal than simply collecting and selling vast amounts of data.

Government Involvement

Although we have laws that regulate the government collection of personal information, we have no laws to stop it from buying databases compiled by private companies. Since September 11, the government has become obsessed with collecting information on the American public. The CIA has invested in a software company, In-Q-Tel, that specializes in monitoring blogs and social networks. The Defense Department, CIA and FBI have all purchased the use of private databases from ChoicePoint, one of the largest and most sophisticated aggregators of personal data.

On November 19, members of two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees held a joint hearing to discuss the effects behavioral advertising has on the privacy of Americans. The chairman of the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) submitted a statement acknowledging the fact that that consumers “have few rights with respect to the collection and use” of their personal information, and said he looked forward to working with committee members “to give consumers tools to protect their privacy without unduly burdening industry or stifling innovation.” The full committee is in the process of determining whether to draft legislation to regulate behavioral advertising.

We have laws to protect our library records. What you read is secret and even the government needs a court order to see it. On the Internet, it is possible to find out what you read, how you found it and how much time you spent looking at it. You would think that our online activity would be at least as secure as our library records. The ACLU applauds the committee for investigating this issue and strongly encourages regulation of the behavioral advertising industry. Our statement on the record can be found here.

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