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To track or not to track

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Date posted: April 8, 2013

The other day I learned that a colleague won a contest, the prize for which was a gift card for a store I’d never heard of. Curious, I Googled the store to find out what they sold (women’s accessories). The next time I went on Facebook, lo and behold, there was a sponsored ad for that store right next to my news feed.

PrivacyCreepy? Maybe, but predictable. Facebook, like many websites, tracks where you go online and uses that information to serve you ads customized to your likes and habits. If you take the time to dig through the privacy information posted on the site, you’ll see what they track (though Facebook is known for unexpectedly changing its privacy rules). Selling access to or information about you to advertisers is how Facebook and many websites make money.

Facebook’s data use policy says “We receive data from the computer, mobile phone or other device you use to access Facebook, including when multiple users log in from the same device. This may include your IP address and other information about things like your internet service, location, the type (including identifiers) of browser you use, or the pages you visit.”

Now, Facebook has released Home for Android phones, an app that GigaOM (a well-regarded website that covers “the intersection of business and technology”) describes as “intended to be the dashboard to your mobile world” and “the start button for your apps.” Writer Om Malik is concerned about the amount and depth of data available to Facebook from mobile phones through this app. GPS data showing where you go and when, data about what apps and services you use, who you text, and more. With so much of our lives (especially true of young people) playing out via mobile phones, the privacy implications are huge. And, yes, GigaOM, like almost everyone on the web, collects data about its users but deserves kudos for the clarity of its privacy policy.

Just how much personal information one is willing to give up will vary by the individual. There is some benefit to websites tracking our activities, in that it helps them customize our experience with them. But the more we use the internet for all aspects of daily life, the more personal information we expose and the more we allow companies to build detailed profiles about us.

Some people are unaware of or unconcerned about the amount of data being collected. Others go to elaborate lengths to keep their data private. The potential for misusing this data is always present and privacy advocates are deeply uncomfortable with the amount of information websites collect. Such concerns led to efforts to establish “do not track” options for web users.

“Do not track me” bills have been introduced in Congress and the Obama administration proposed a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Most browsers now have a do not track feature and many websites and services allow you to opt out of certain data being collected, but the system is far from perfect. In fact, Google’s Chrome browser says:

“You can include a ‘Do Not Track’ request with your browsing traffic. However, the effect depends on whether a website responds to the request, and how the request is interpreted.” The explanation goes on to say “At this time, most web services, including Google’s, do not alter their behavior or change their services upon receiving Do Not Track requests.” So you’re left to wonder what’s the point?

When it comes to privacy, we may be our own worst enemy. Alessandro Acquisti at Carnegie Mellon University studies how people make privacy decisions and his findings suggest that we’re rather irrational. A recent New York Times article about Acquisti’s work points out that many business and policy decisions assume people will make rational choices about their personal information. Yet his work shows “we don’t always act in our own best interest” and “[w]e can be easily manipulated by how we are asked for information.” A variety of factors, from distraction to tempting offers, can prompt consumers to give up personal data. The need for instant gratification at a website may tempt us to skip the steps necessary to protect our privacy.

If that’s the case, much of what policymakers and privacy advocates have done is based on a false premise and will not be very effective.

In the fast changing world of the Internet, this is one topic where there will be much more to come.

Image credit: Microsoft Office Clip Art.

  • Camrenmartin

    What if you don’t have a privacy button