On any given morning when you open your browser and check your favorite news site, an interesting thing happens in the blink of an eye between your click and when the news about various world crises appear on your monitor. Data from this one visit was likely sent to multiple companies, some of which you may have heard of and many you haven’t. Almost instantly, these companies log your visit, bombard you with ads tailored to your interests, and contribute to an ever-growing online file about you.
There's nothing sinister about this. Advertisers support free online content. All the personal data lets them tweak their ads to your interests and measure the effectiveness of how well their approach is working. The site might be The New York Times, CBS News, The Atlantic, or BBC, and the same process happens more or less to the same degree with any site. Each move of your mouse generates data for someone, and all the companies want to make sure that your steps around the Internet are captured.
It would be naive to believe that we are not all the subjects of targeted advertising, but the sheer number of data collectors will probably surprise you. If I may share from my own experiences in a typical 48 hour period, the companies tracking me were Acerno. Adara Media. Adblade. Adbrite. ADC Onion. Adchemy. ADiFY. AdMeld. Adnetik, Adtech, AppNexus, Atlas, Audience Science. This was just the “A's”. It's possible to view which ones do so using an add-in for Firefox called "Lightbeam".
The complete list was over 100, and while you might use the Firefox add-in "Lightbeam" to compile your own list, it’s going to surprise you just how many there are that are watching you. The major companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, etc., are all on my list, but most of the ones I saw are smaller data and advertising businesses that make up a separate network of companies that want me to see their ads and buy their sponsored products. There’s huge money in it, and while someone's name might not be attached to the data collected (yet), the data is used to select a set of ads an individual is statistically more likely to respond to.
We navigate over the web pretty much clueless of the machines that power the web with cookies that generate huge databases of our movements. When we shop for a children’s birthday caterer and magically see clown ads appear on random web pages, it’s not difficult to feel a little creeped out by the feeling we are being watched.
These issues were nonexistent when Bush 1 was in the White House. They were only beginning to be thought of when 911 happened. We live in a time when unique capabilities advertisers use did not exist even a decade ago. Never before has so much data been gathered about so many people for the sole purpose of selling them “stuff.”
The privacy debates are typically couched in geek speak that is technical in nature. A story breaks about Google bypassing various browser privacy settings, or we read the details about how Facebook tracks you with various techniques and changes privacy policies on what seems a whim. The question that is at stake is, can we remain anonymous? How do we guard our online identity? Do the companies exist to serve the users or the clients?
All the collection companies do pretty much the same thing by offering targeted ads based on how you act (behavioral), who you are (demographic), and, of course, where you live (geographic). They provide advertisers the ability to choose the types of sites which their ads will run, based on multiple parameters in branding and marketing.
It's noteworthy to point out how this practice is different from traditional advertising. The practice used to be between advertisers and publications targeted towards a specific audience – hobbyists for example. You wanted to read about the latest news in your field of interest and bought a publication targeted towards people with shared interests - an audience - and advertisers would purchase ad space in the publication to reach that audience. Some practiced it as an art and it eventually became a science that was studied at the graduate school level. Online advertising is different - you buy the audience without the publication. You want a ScubaWorld.com reader? An ad network can sell you someone who has been to scubaworld.com, but is now reading about shaving products at shavingproducts.com. The data is collected and is cheaper and more targeted. Bids for the data are a fraction of what the equivalent print version would be.
Legitimate privacy concerns arise when geodata is collected and the data is used for purposes other than what an individual should reasonably expect. The temptation to use geodata for other purposes is tempting, especially when it is combined with other consumer information (i.e., name, address, etc.). This conflated data provides businesses the ability to send targeted advertisements to consumers and even monitor an individual's movements – acts that might be considered an invasion of privacy.
The growth of and the collection of geodata is in collision with both consumer privacy concerns. There are also legitimate privacy concerns in nations that host a repressive government with respect to free speech and free thought. The more difficult question of both is “what constitutes a valid use of such data? Currently in the US and Europe, there is little legislation or guidance on this question. As anyone surfs the Web, information is constantly being collected about you. Web tracking is not 100% evil - personal data can make your browsing more efficient; cookies can help your favorite websites stay in business.
Review the Digital Element website to gain an insight to the way personal geodata is marketed to third parties by at least one company.
Listen to the Experts
One cybercrime expert puts it thusly,"Do we blindly trust any future government? Because any right we give away, we give away for good." In less than ten minutes, Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer at F-Secure Corporation in Finland, has led his team through some of the largest computer virus outbreaks in history. His team took down the world-wide network used by the Sobig.F worm. He was the first to warn the world about the Sasser outbreak, and he has done classified briefings on the operation of the Stuxnet worm -- a hugely complex worm designed to sabotage Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities (9:23).