An article at The Nation on “microtargeting” highlights another fact about our increasingly online lives that I thought we’d explore a bit. Last week we talked about securing our logon IDs and passwords so we’re somewhat less likely to be hacked and have personal information or even money stolen. But that’s only a small piece of a very large and complex puzzle. Let’s consider how our Internet travels are tracked. And more important, for what purpose(s).
“Privacy” and “anonymity” are being defined down, and single violations of individual privacy like hacking and identity theft, while aggravating, are trivial compared with efforts toward the comprehensive accumulation of data on every single consumer. The marketing industry is attempting to profile and classify us all, so that advertising can be customized and targeted as precisely as possible. Google, Facebook, Apple and thousands of lesser-known companies are making it their policy and business to profile us in detail, all in the hopes of crafting better sales pitches.
Although the focus is targeting us for marketing purposes, the same techniques are available and increasingly used for government surveillance. We wandered into this on Tuesday in the comments on KrisA’s second post in his “guns” series. Suddenly the conspiracy theories, the tinfoil hat stuff, appears real and immediate.
Because I haven’t asked his permission, I won’t identify the commenter at Tom Junod’s guest post on Charlie Pierce’s Esquire politics blog, who observed (My bold):
…drones are much more than aerial photographers. Depending on the model being deployed, they can field a full complement of remote sensors that can tell how many people are in a structure, intercept ALL land line, cellular, and internet traffic. (They can jam those also, if desired.) They can also listen in to the people in the building.
And all this data can be live-streamed into the NSA’s data fusion center in Utah, where it is merged with your bank records, credit card records, phone bills, travel reservations, and consumer purchases.
How many of us use Google to search the Internet? “Google” has become a verb that’s almost generic (think Kleenex!) and tends to be our default search engine, even built into our browsers. One example of how Google vacuums up our searches is Google Flu Trends.
Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate current flu activity around the world in near real-time.
According to a C|NET article in October,
[Verizon] this month began offering reports to marketers showing what Verizon subscribers are doing on their phones and other mobile devices, including what iOS and Android apps are in use in which locations. Verizon says it may link the data to third-party databases with information about customers’ gender, age, and even details such as “sports enthusiast, frequent diner or pet owner.”
There are four general stages through which companies gather and use information about us: they observe what we do, collect information, aggregate it, and then use it to target us with ads. It is not difficult to imagine this model being used to do much more than sell us stuff. Today, let’s look at the ways we’re observed.
As we browse the web, we leave permanent footprints of our activities. Every device connected to the Internet has an IP (Internet Protocol) address, which does not identify us personally, but isn’t entirely anonymous either. Blocks of IP addresses are assigned to specific Internet service providers (ISPs) like AT&T or Comcast, and most addresses are associated with a specific geographic location. By visiting a website, you enable the website owner to learn where you are located, which of course helps with targeting for marketing (or other) purposes.
Have you ever noticed, in the bottom corner of your browser window, the rapidly displayed names of “transferring data from” entities, such as “double-click.net” that are on the page you’re loading? Those keep track of you and serve you ads. Firedoglake uses them, as do most, if not all, websites. Did you ever wonder how a website you’ve visited previously “knows” you? Websites you visit ask your browser to keep “Cookies” — bits of data that store (for example) your preferred language, or even your login ID and password. Cookies are the ways a website knows when you return to a site, and some are good, in that they tell a website whether to display confidential information if you’ve authenticated with an ID and password. Browsers send cookies back only to the site that sent them, but what that site does with the information can be almost unlimited, including selling it to other companies.
Facebook and Twitter go even further; they require us to sign up for an account, using our real name and other personal information. And we do, because we want our family and friends to recognize us. Every time we visit a website that has a Facebook “like” button or a Twitter “tweet” button or a Google “+1” button, or a site that makes us use our Facebook account to comment (as many do) those companies know that we’ve visited, even if we don’t click on that button. That Facebook identification follows us to any site that requires that account to comment. So I am identified by my Facebook account at Charlie Pierce’s Politics blog, and also at the South Bend Tribune, even though I’ve never previously used my Facebook account to comment at the Tribune! And if you do click “like” or authorize an application, Facebook forks over your information to newspapers, publishing companies or gaming sites. From the Nation article:
Sharing your information with a third-party application on Facebook is akin to poking a hole in a water balloon: only one prick is needed for everything to leak out.
Next week we’ll see how they collect and aggregate our information. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments, and off-topic is OK as always. This is “free for all.”
Photo: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license, Author: Lotusblak