Friday, October 1, 2010

Internet Privacy and Prying Eyes

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.”
Marlon Brando

You are a 39 year old man who likes to play baseball, drink premium beer and go on long bike rides. You are married with two kids, work in the financial services field, own your own home, make roughly $150,000 a year. You have a college degree, and you struggle with mild depression. Have we met? No, and we probably never will, but I can find out everything about you simply because you like to surf the internet. Based on the keywords we use in search engines, our news sites, shopping habits and even simple things like restaurant reviews we write allow companies to get to know us more intimately than your neighbour and maybe even your spouse. Welcome to the world of today’s personalized internet marketing, a world that has moved well beyond simple cookies and even beacons. I am not talking about the ones mama used to bake or guiding lights, but something far more sinister. These new tracking tools are eyes designed to carefully and surreptitiously watch your every move and even everything you type, depending on the nature of the individual software that gets downloaded every time you open a webpage. And yes, I mean any and every webpage. Originally, these tools were meant to be harmless reminders of our preferences on a specific site: which geography we were in, our saved shopping cart items, and our shipping and billing information. In addition, these were cookies installed by the website, but today they have morphed into digital stalkers whose actions are akin to going through your trash. Worse yet, in many instances the site you are visiting may not even be aware that this type of watching software exists on its web page. It is increasingly being used by third party content providers of which there can be dozens on any given page, who are serving content from ad banners to free software downloads. Alarmed yet?

The people who capture and sell this information say that an individual’s anonymity is protected because we are never identified by name or address. But all this information is being collected from a combination of gleaning publicly available databases and using surreptitious tracking tools on the web as described in the opening paragraph. These companies then add some smart geeks who write programs that can analyze this information and attach assumptions by cross referencing things like home ownership records, family income, medical records and even favourite restaurants and brands you are loyal to and make very detailed and scarily accurate assumptions about each individual. This information is mostly packaged and sold to advertisers, marketers and even financial services companies who are quite likely to be making credit card and loan approvals based on these assumptions, which includes the credit worthiness of an individual. Even though financial companies claim that they are not using this information to profile or reject people for loans, but to better target their products and services. Marketers and retailers say they are able to more effectively do the same. I know from working on websites for various clients that we served up the landing page of a site by recognizing who you are, but this was non-intrusive and based on your visit and purchase history, and limited to your secure activity on that site (and with your consent). It was never based on your general surfing history or activity outside that particular website. The promise of this technology was individual customization; however, what I am now describing goes far deeper and uses information far beyond the reach and remit of one particular web merchant. For example “If we've identified a visitor as a midlife-crisis male," says Demdex CEO Randy Nicolau, a client, such as an auto retailer, can "give him a different experience than a young mother with a new family." The guy sees a red convertible, the mom a minivan.” (Wall Street Journal article:

I understand that the world we live in today is very different from the one our parents grew up in, or for that matter even from the one we grew up in. Technology has changed our lives in many ways, and one of the sacrifices of convenience and the instant gratification which we all seem to yearn, is our privacy. For us to not have to go through the pain of initiation and identification each time we land on a webpage, to shop or consume news, or read recipes means each site needs to remember who we are and what our preferences are. In simple terms it means that each time I go to read news I will not have to specify my geography for the edition I want or have to re-enter my credit card or shipping address each time I shop at my favourite online store. All this is reasonable to me and I am sure to most people, and more importantly we are able make this choice. You can, for instance, delete cookies after each internet session, and voila, the same site will treat you like a first time visitor until you sign in to your password protected account. However, in this new world, the majority of time we are not told, or even aware of, who is tracking and monitoring our surfing activity or how much of it is being watched, stored, analyzed and then sold to a third party. Many young people today seem to feel that privacy is an old-fashioned notion for an old-fashioned generation; I completely disagree, but that is a matter for another blog. If someone wants to share his or her life’s every waking moment, from brushing their teeth in the morning to crying themselves to sleep at night and everything in-between, then all the power to them (suffice it to say, I will never accept you as a ‘friend’ or quickly ‘un-friend’ you) but that is your choice and mine. Taking away my privacy or invading it without my knowledge is not acceptable, because I did not volunteer to give it up. This is where I have a fundamental issue with this new practice, and the laws that govern our privacy are hopelessly outdated for this new digital world. So for all those people who believed the internet was the last and greatest bastion of anonymity - simply put, you’re no longer a random IP address.

I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article and series I cited above, on Internet privacy. Below I am listing sites you can visit in order to Opt-Out from being tracked and a link to download Privacy Choice, a WSJ vetted software, which tells you who is watching you on every site you visit (the company that provides the software does not track or monitor you). While these are things you can do to take greater control of your privacy, you should keep in mind that all of this is based on companies that voluntarily disclose their tracking tools, and are members of the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), a body formed to create greater transparency and protect our online privacy. Many of the companies tracking us are not members of NAI and do not disclose their tracking tools, only the big and reputable companies do.

List of sites to Opt-Out:

Privacy Choice: the website offering FREE software tool that allows you to see who is tracking you on each site you visit:

1 comment:

  1. comScore, the parent company of RelevantKnowledge, has invested substantial resources in making our data collection and privacy practices the best they can possibly be. Recently, comScore's ScorecardResearch service earned the highest possible rating of 50 out of 50 for its online privacy practices by PrivacyChoice, a leader in privacy technology innovation. ScorecardResearch is a service offered by comScore, which also operates the RelevantKnowledge market research panel. If you have further questions about RelevantKnowledge, please visit our website:
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    RelevantKnowledge Customer Support Team