Online behaviour tracking and the erosion of your privacy

Marketing and media companies are always looking for innovative ways to gauge consumer behaviour and activity online. It affects how accurately they’re able to market their products according to age, gender, cultural demographics, and geography. There’s a fine line, however, between savvy market research and bypassing the principles of consumer privacy.

Many technology companies make it their mission to develop new technologies that practically deauthorise user choice about what is tracked and, even more subversively, how it’s tracked.

A recent example comes in the form of ETag tracking, which can store information about your online behaviour in your browser’s cache rather than in your system cookies.

The idea here is that even if you delete your cookies in an attempt to circumvent, or at least delimit, an anonymous conglomerate having access to your browsing habits, ETagging can simply reinstate all data upon a fresh browser relaunch.

It’s one reason why consumer privacy, and by extension personal privacy, is such a contentious issue.

Sure we want to be propositioned by advertising that’s relevant and useful, but we also want to be in full control of what we share and when we share it. Even in the age of social media, where it’s tempting to condense the global community into an online crossroads of pithy bylines and reciprocal #hashtags, it doesn’t mean there aren’t also digital and social taboos that we don’t want others to cross, not even a search engine.

It could be as inane as a search for hair-loss treatments or busty Asian beauties, and as sobering as a treatment for impotence, depression, or marriage troubles. We rightly expect to be able to control whether such information is tracked and how it’s disseminated.

Apple recently caused an international furore, particularly in the US, France and South Korea, over its alleged tracking of iPhone user locations. Apple maintains that the purpose of this tracking is simply to maintain “a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your location”, which can mean a pacier calculation of user proximity when it comes to maps and other location-based services.

The issue, really, is less that Apple has this information than the security risk involved in potential third-party violators, who could use this data for malicious intent because it isn’t encrypted at all. Additionally, there seems to be instances where Apple is tracking locations even where a user has disabled this function on the device’s front end.

US senator Al Franken, in his opening statement at the Subcommittee on Protecting Mobile Privacy, put the issue trenchantly. He said that although private businesses might do many things better than the government in the US, there are still formal and legal accountability mechanisms between government and the electorate. Not so with the private sector:

… we have some protections here and there, but we’re not even close to protecting all of the information that we need to. I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them. I also believe that they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information, and with whom they want to share it and when. And I think we have those rights for all of our personal information.

When I think, for instance, just how much data Google has about me in their vaulted online archives it makes me realise that there’s a need for sensitive and specific regulatory mechanisms over how this information is used and why.

By default, if you use Gmail for your personal communication there’s automated web tracking activated, which stores the entire history of all your Google web searches and attaches it to your profile.

Even when you choose to turn off this option, the language Google uses to describe the process is telling: you “pause” web history tracking rather than halt it outright. Of course, Google will speak of this feature in the language of user optimisation but it’s a sobering realisation to think how much information one company can collect about so many millions of people. With the advent of Google+, the company’s social dimension is well in place, and with that comes an even greater need for industry accountability.

The whole debate is neither a Google problem nor an Apple problem. It’s more a public interest issue, and it arises because it’s so easy to devalue privacy in the name of innovation and convenience.



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