internet

Websites Share Log-In Name and Personal Information With Advertisers

Oct 12, 2011

But do we really need a “Do Not Track” list?

internet Websites Share Log In Name and Personal Information With Advertisers

Yesterday, according to the ACLU, Stanford University computer scientist Jonathan Mayer released a study detailing the scope of behavioral targeting, which is the practice of tracking consumers around the internet, then selling that information to advertisers.

The ACLU writes, Mayer “found that websites are widely sharing your log in name and personal information (like your first and last name and birthday). For example when you view a local ad on the Home Depot website, your first name and email address is sent to 13 additional companies. The site okcupid.com packages your gender, zip code and date of birth especially for advertisers.”

One line of code can essentially follow an internet user through their usual browsing by way of cookies. (Readers would do well to frequently empty their cookie cache.)

According to a Wall Street Journal article published in July 2010, a “study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.”

But, cookies aren’t they only tool at an internet spy’s disposal—other technology can track people in real time.

While advertisers collecting information on consumers is rather invasive and the results annoying, the bigger problem here is the fact that this data would be accessible to the government. In effect, the data-mining businesses and advertisers are unwittingly spying on citizens.

It’s a bit like what Julian Assange said about Facebook: that it is the most appaling spying machine ever created because Facebook makes governments’ domestic spying job easy. It’s likely not the intent with Facebook (unless, like some, you believe it’s CIA run), but it certainly can be a result.

As Assange notes, governments can bring to bear legal and political pressures on companies and they have no choice but to comply.

But, would a “Do Not Track” list, similar to the national “Do Not Call” database, work to counteract these practices? People would be able to opt out of tracking, but then we have a problem in that the U.S. government would have a database of all those people who do not want to be tracked. And surely criminals or terrorists will get hip to the idea of opting out of tracking, something the government clearly believes is a useful tool in domestic espionage.

Data aggregators not only have contracts with advertisers and employers; they regularly do business with both federal and state governments.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. government would so easily let go of easy intelligence gathering tools. Would they create loopholes to still gather that data with terrorist suspects? If there would be loopholes to collect such information on terrorist suspects, then it stands to reason that other people, such as activists or protesters, might find themselves once again tracked.

The ACLU raises another interesting point in saying, “ Should anyone have the right to know and sell to others the fact that you are overweight, or depressed , or gay?”

We are seeing more and more data tracking because it sells. And the fact that it sells creates more refined and intrusive methods of collection. It’s a vicious cycle. A feedback loop of sorts.

An opt-out system sounds well and good, but we also should encourage the creation of better data-tracking software that fights both sophisticated, self-regenerating cookies and non-cookie tracking technology.

For the time being, again, get in the habit of clearing cookies from your browser.

And download the latest Firefox—it already has a “Do Not Track” feature. Head over to their Help page and click on the links below “Privacy and Security.”

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