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Over Easy: Friday Free for All

Magnifying glass in front of a book Last week we focused on how we are observed in our travels across the information superhighway. Everywhere we go, companies gather and use information about us: they watch what we do, collect information about us, aggregate it, and then use it to target us with ads.

A generation ago, web pages were merely formatted text, albeit colorful and occasionally even informative. Today’s web pages are collections of content, ads, and tracking mechanisms that can talk to one another. The web rapidly is becoming an interconnected aggregation of trackers and bugs.

From The Nation article on microtargeting,

If you’re logged in to Facebook, Twitter, Google or Amazon, it’s safe to say these sites are tracking and retaining everything you’re doing on their sites and on any other sites that host their scripts and widgets. It’s how they make recommendations: for friends, products, events. … A newspaper’s website may know all the visitors to its site, but it knows nothing about their activities elsewhere. Its advertisers might, however, and Google Analytics certainly does: it offers a wide array of services to websites, tracking where users are coming from and what they search for before arriving at a page, all behind a slick interface. In exchange, Google gets to see the entire history of a site’s access logs. Google Analytics and similar services … are so ubiquitous that most of your web browsing is likely captured by one or more of these companies. They don’t have your name, but they have your IP address, rough physical location and a good chunk of your activity online.

Far more information has been collected than has been put to use, and the purposes to which it has been put have not always been visible to consumers. There is the danger of your personal information being sold, resold or otherwise distributed so that deleting it becomes practically impossible. If this data is your personal profile, more than simply knowledge of your consumer habits is available for discovery.

An article in Digital Trends, Top 100 websites: How they track your every move online, published in August 2012, highlights the biggest companies that track you, what they do, and how you can (sometimes) avoid the tracking.

In total, about 125 different companies or company products are used to track your online activity through the top 100 sites. Many of these are simple advertising networks — but others are particularly nefarious. To get a better sense of what each of these companies are, I reached out to attorney Sarah Downey, a privacy strategist for Abine, which created Do Not Track Plus [now DoNotTrackMe].

If you’re interested in the topic, do read the whole article; it contains good info, and links to a free download of DoNotTrackMe as well as “delete me” and “mask me” tools.

The value of this collection of data is frequently thought of only in terms of selling us stuff. Fine-grained targeting of online ads is invasive and more than a little creepy, but usually not dangerous. But other uses of that data are equally creepy and can be dangerous, too!

For example, your FICO credit score is calculated by a secret formula that uses your payment history, credit types and use, length of your credit history, and recent searches for your credit rating by third parties. But FICO is silent on what information it uses, or its source. Nothing prevents your Internet browsing activity from figuring into this calculation if credit bureaus are able to obtain it.

Your profile can reveal all sorts of healthy — or unhealthy — habits to insurance companies, like your gym memberships, bar tabs, poor diet, serious illnesses, time spent on dating websites, or interest in recreational drugs or certain social activities. If you “like” the Alzheimer’s Association, or a Gold’s Gym, or a local bar, for example, it won’t just be advertisers who might take notice. And if there are errors in your profile, you won’t know about those either, or have the chance to correct them. You won’t know why your insurance premiums are so high or your credit application was turned down.

Finally, there is the government, as you might expect. The National Security Agency, Department of Homeland Security and FBI already collect a huge amount of information on Internet activity. Dana Priest and William Arkin exposed the extent of collecting in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Most of the data was simply a vast stockpile of information on ordinary people, collected with a huge dragnet and permanently filed away because there was no pressing reason to delete it. Once your profile is created and shared among companies, the entities that know your behavioral patterns and day-by-day online and offline activity will only grow, and you’ll be helpless to corral it. You had no say in your profile’s collection or sale, but it is a resource that can be put to use in both benign and dangerous ways. You would not even know that your profile is being turned over to the government, just as you probably didn’t realize it was being created.

Next week, I’ll wrap up with the (mostly worthless) privacy promises companies make about their activities, and how we can deal with what’s in store for the future. As the Nation article suggests,

…few people end up leaving Facebook. All of your friends are there, being watched and anonymized as they “friend” and watch you, all of them doing, in the words of Joseph Turow, “free labor in the interest of corporate profits.”

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."