Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Myth of Internet Privacy

“Most people do not know they are being tracked, and they aren’t given a choice whether to be tracked or to have their online behavior and personal information shared with large networks of advertisers.” – Nancy King, associate professor of business law, Oregon State University
In my final article about the “hidden” internet I will uncover what most of us probably already know – that we are being watched and profiled, not by a nefarious Big Brother government but by private commercial interests. Our browsing, searching and purchasing habits are being tracked, tabulated and targeted.

Most of us know that “cookies” are placed on our computer hard drives when we visit a web site. These bits of code identify us as return visitors and record what we looked at and how long we dwelled on a particular site. This information is also sent to companies which compile this information and sell it to advertisers to target us for marketing pitches based on our purported interests.

Many of us believe that we can disable or delete cookies, but many sites require them enabled in order to use certain sites. And deleting them is of no protection when the information is passed on to a third party. Beyond cookies there are also “beacons” which run on some of the web sites we browse. Because the Beacons reside on the remote site rather than our hard drives, their information collection activities are beyond our reach or control.

Nancy King quoted above warns that there is little in the way of legal protections over our privacy and even scant less governmental oversight with respect to e-commerce and data collection. It is the Wild West out there and business interests seem limited by only what they can get away with.

In some cases this information can be good, sending information out way that we may not need to search for. But a vast majority of consumers do not realize they are being tracked, who is tracking them and what the information is used for. Recently one of my readers was unaware that their IP address can give away their geographic location. Try for yourself:

Laws are scant, having not kept up with new technology. Government wire taping restrictions were written for the times when we all had telephones connected via wires to our homes and offices. It is a Brave New World out there and the laws regarding how technologies have not kept up. (1)Wireless connections themselves can open up more opportunities for surveillance and exploitation.

Unfortunately we cannot look to government to protect our interests with respect to Internet privacy; oversight has been recently undermined by the FCC recently adopting business recommendations allowing businesses to disregard (2)Net Neutrality.
Instead of a rule to protect Internet users' freedom to choose, the Commission has opened the door for broadband payola - letting phone and cable companies charge steep tolls to favor the content and services of a select group of corporate partners, relegating everyone else to the cyber-equivalent of a winding dirt road.~ Timothy Karr
Read Nancy King’s full article in the Corvallis Oregon Gazette Times, “A Matter of Privacy”


1. “ Google says mistakenly got wireless data.”Reuters, May 15, 2010

2. “Net Neutrality is the freedom of speech, freedom of choice issue of the 21st century. It's the guarantee of a more open and democratic media system that was baked into the Internet at its founding.” ~ Obama FCC Caves on Net Neutrality -- Tuesday Betrayal Assured, Timothy Karr, Huffington Post, December 20, 2010.


Gorilla Bananas said...

Are there any examples of abuses here? I would have thought that advertising your goods to net users more likely to be interested in buying them benefits both parties.

PeterDeMan said...

I have long been aware of what you wrote, and though it doesn't surprise me, wasn't aware how easily I can be located thru my IP address. Privacy is a concept that may soon be removed from the lexicon.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Bananas In 2007 Comcast, with no announcement, began blocking P2P (Peer-to-Peer) network traffic. Specific customers were contacted by Comcast and told they were using too much bandwidth. They were forced to stop the practice; so they turned to their friends in congress.

The answer to your question is, we don't know. Consumers not only have no way to know how their information is being used but have literally no way to find out. There is no disclosure regarding who, what, where or how the data mined from out internet use is used. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has suggested consumers be given the option to join a "do not monitor" list. We can "hope" that the technology would be used responsibly but commercial interests, unfettered and motivated by profits have shown whose interest they often put first. The more serious risk is that of identity theft.

If I recall correctly, I believe you were one of the readers who were unable to see the Bill Clinton video.

Peter Cookies in themselves are not a big issue, and most of us are aware of them. And as Bananas pointed out, having advertising targeted to your interests may not, in itself, be a bad thing. But the stage is set, as the article pointed out, to for example, offer you a higher airline ticket price than I would because the surveillance read from your computer indicates you can more likely afford it.

The issue for me is that I don't know who is monitoring my internet use and for what purpose - moreover, I have no way to find out, let alone opt out. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but The standards are being set by private commercial interests; who's interests do you primarily think they have in mind?

billy pilgrim said...

i've long assumed that everything i do is monitored, repackaged and sold. i think the old adage that there's no such thing as a free lunch is very applicable to the net.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Billy Yes, someone always picks up the tab... that "someone" is usually us.

Robert the Skeptic said...

*** UPDATE ***
The Internet as We Know it Is Still at Risk
... the rule (Net Neutrality) approved today is not nearly strong enough to protect consumers or preserve the free and open Internet.

Wow, that was awkward said...

Yep yep yep. As a guy in the advertising industry, this is an issue with two big sides for me. I can do a better job for my clients with all the filtering and behavioral targeting available. And I can do a better job for my clients by subscribing to tracking, measurement and optimization software. But I also don't want to ever be part of privacy infringements. It is indeed the wild wild west out there.

Nance said...

The most obvious example for me is gmail. If you have an account, anytime you sign on, there will be ads targeted to your email content...and that gives me the Big Time Willies.

And your airline ticket price example? One more excellent reason to deplore air travel, dammit.

Thank you for this carefully researched and well-delivered service.

Anonymous said...

One of the scariest parts of this issue is that the younger generation does not see privacy as an issue. The kids whom I deal with don't see privacy as something important to them, and they have no concept of the loss of privacy. This is most likely due to them having grown up with the internet. This issue will not be addressed as the consumers do not care.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Awkward Well things are apparently going smoothly - but it will likely be a matter of time before some advertiser or business does some outrageous thing with that information and brings an avalanche of regulation down upon everyone.

Nance They say eternal vivilence is the price of freedom.

BackRow I hear some of these young people are applying for jobs and finding out that imprudent things they have said or done online, which seems to keep a perpetual permanent record, is coming back to haunt them. Stories abound.

Rain said...

It is possible that more advanced site meters figure more exactly where someone is, but mine tells the location of their server. So for someone who comes in off Hughes net which is a dish, it doesn't do much for the exact location. The other thing my husband had told me is that our IP address changes. I have my site meter set up to not count my own visits since I use it for some of my bookmarks but it doesn't count more than my exact number but also those with all but the last couple of digits.

Since I am pretty open about my geographic region, I don't care much that someone knows that but would not like it if they could find my home address as I only give that out once I trust someone. I did pretty well know that our usage online is checked by those who profit from it. What a person like me doesn't want is a hacker who wants to know more about me than I am offering. For the businesses, I don't care much as I will be buying what I want irrespective of their ads.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain It is true that you "lease" a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) IP address as there are not enough IP addresses to assign to every live connection out there. However the pool or "range" of addresses available for lease are fixed for a geographic area. For example, the pool of IP addresses I lease will geographically identify me with the regional Comcast server in Albany, though I live in Corvallis.

However, the MAC (Media Access Control) address assigned by the manufacturer of your network hardware is unique in the world. When you connect to the Internet, the (dynamic) IP address is assigned to that MAC address for your computer hardware.

Also tied to that MAC address is information about your computer name, operating system and other information, to the extent that your computer can be "fingerprinted" and specifically identified.

But backing off a bit - as you say, if all this technology is simply used to target sales pitches at us, and we are free to ignore them, where is the harm? But tied to records of your purchasing habits, browsing, etc... The information pitched to you can be specifically crafted for you specifically.

Rain said...

The thing is they do what profits them. If they make money off that info than they will go out of their way to get it. If it proves unprofitable, they'll stop. It's all about money.

I think some people have an IP that is fixed and you pay extra for it. I don't really care that they know what kind of computer I have nor the time that I logged on. But like with Hughes, it shows me as being in Missouri most of the time. I am not. But maybe it gives my actual time zone. I have seen it with others who visit my site and if they have Hughes, it is not as apt to tell them what city as if they use say Comcast. There are a few also who come in with no info which I am assuming they paid for blocking. I haven't really cared that much for the blog other than it's fun to see someone came from say India or China and I always wonder what interested them

The Mother said...

Never trust a bunch of old farts in Congress, who probably don't even know how to use a computer, to understand the complicated issues of internet security.

They'll probably do as well as they do with the budget.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Rain For me it is not my location that concerns me, it is the tracking of where I browse and what I purchase that is of concern. That happens no matter where you are. The fact that it is private business, with little to no government oversight, that bothers me - we all know whose interests that have at their core.

Dr. Mom I recall when the Clinton administration came into the White House they had to replace all the typewriters with computers. Even when Obama came in he was told he could not keep his Blackberry. Not - they adjusted the security so he could continue to use it.

They tell me John McCain doesn't know how to use a computer. It wouldn't surprise me.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Like any snare, it is very seductive, highly distracting, giving us access to so much. I think I'll think about all this in a few days. I find it discouraging, as I do so many things that involve legislation and business.

Octopus said...

Robert, I didn't know where to leave this comment but this is as good a place as any. Just stopping by to wish you are Happy and Healthy Holiday and best wishes for the New Year.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Marylinn So much which effects us happens behind the scenes and out of view and subject to little oversight. The only comfort I take is that anything I would be interested in would be termendiously boring to commercial and other interests.

Octopus Thank you for the lovely wishes. Very thoughtful!!

GutsyWriter said...

My opinion is if I'm willing to share my thoughts on my blog and through comments, I am aware that this is available to the world, and that any company can follow what I say or think. So I'm allowing this to happen whether I agree or not.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy Rightly so, that is why I don't put out any comment or opinion which I feel I cannot adequately defend or substantiate. Free speech carries a responsibility along with it's inherent "right".

KleinsteMotte said...

I have long known this is a new world. We cannot keep up with the speed of what's happening. Now even our health care is being linked to our identity by drug companies who get our data when prescriptions are filled. Then there are the latest apps. Blood sugar monitor from you phone ,. Don't forget to track your exercise on you wireless device and if you enable location they'll stick a pin in the map showing you where you are while holding your device. Face recognition is the latest to be added to data collecting, harvesting. The Cohen song, The future, sums up how I feel about this. What a mess!!!