Internet anonymity is a complicated subject. Despite the fact that privacy concerns come up with just about every new whizzbang gizmo pushed out of tech corporations, it’s a difficult subject to fully deconstruct and lay out. On one hand, no one likes being watched, and on the other hand, we’re going to leave footprints everywhere we go on the internet, regardless of how careful we are. Perhaps it’s how these footprints are used that tends to creep people out.
Have you ever wondered how a search engine developed in the dotcom bubble became one of the largest corporations in the entire world? While Google first gained fame for its impressive search algorithm, their real innovation was in the world of internet advertising.
When browsing the internet, you’re identified by your IP (internet protocol) address. The IP address is mostly anonymous, only being traceable back to your internet service provider, but by following that address’s behavior, Google gets a good idea of who you are and what you enjoy doing. While whether or not Google can, will, or wants to identify you may be a matter for a future article, the information that we know they track is tremendously valuable to advertisers.
On classic media, such as TV or magazines, there is no way of knowing who is going to view your advertisements. Sure, advertising firms know that if they put toy ads in a Saturday morning cartoon block, they’d most likely be seen by swarms of children, but information like their interests and specific age group is still a mystery. The internet, through a variety of methods, knows you. It knows what you enjoy doing and it probably has a good guess at what gender you identify with and how old you are. You’re constantly giving out this information, companies like Google collect it, and now Google knows that you’ve been researching the best way to exhume a grave and is ready to sell you a shovel.
CAN I INTEREST YOU IN A SHOVEL?
There’s a popular anecdote about Target using a teenaged customer’s buying habits to discover that she was pregnant before she or her family were even aware of it. It’s the legendary work of data analyst Andrew Pole, who found that the buying habits of pregnant women change in a very consistent manner and was able to create a pregnancy probability rating by tracking the spending habits of buyers. Using this formula, Target could then start bombarding suspected expectant mothers with coupons for baby formula and ads for diapers.
Many large retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online, have similar methods of targeted advertising. For example, I can’t do Christmas shopping on Amazon without ending up with ads and newsletters for romantic comedies and Harlequin Romance novels that I would never, ever buy, I swear. Most people are already familiar with Netflix’s recommended watching, which tracks what movies and shows you’ve watched and provides suggestions complete with a probability score to help you choose. Even back when Netflix was strictly in the business of mailing DVDs, they placed great importance on their prediction algorithm.
This is all pretty innocuous, though. Most people aren’t going to care if Target is trying to zero in on their preferences; they may actually be appreciative. It’s estimated that over half of customers find it annoying when offers are made for things that are inapplicable to them.
The question you have to ask yourself is if you’re all right with companies tracking you without your consent, because once they have that information, it’s out of your control. Some companies will state what they plan to do with that information in their privacy policies, but many don’t. Your data may be used to ensure that the movies that show up in your queue may actually interest you, but other times it’s just compiled and sold to other companies for their analysis. The data’s often kept anonymous, but it doesn’t have to be. Nothing is stopping corporations from using the data to identify and locate you, and that’s what creeps many people out.
SCRUBBING YOUR FOOTPRINTS
The opinion of whether or not this practice of tracking and cataloguing people is creepy will vary from individual to individual. Regardless of your stance, the only way companies will ever stop is through government legislation, but because of the global nature of the web, it’s likely going to be a long time before anything can be properly enforced. Not that people aren’t going to try. Europe recently passed an act that requires websites to disclose when tracking cookies are in use and Canada enacted legislation that necessitates approval before companies can send you newsletter.