Information is a powerful and valuable tool, especially to those who stand to profit from it. Imagine if Internet spies could access the websites you’ve visited, links that you’ve clicked on, things that you’ve purchased, and information you’ve shared. The fact is they already do! And chances are they’ll continue to reap more of your personal information over time, for which advertisers and other third parties are paying a premium.
One of the fastest growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on you, according to a recent study conducted by the Wall Street Journal. The study concluded that “Internet tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive” and revealed “new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions.” The study also found that “the nation’s top 50 websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology on the computers of visitors, usually with no warning.” (WSJ, “The Web’s New Goldmine,” July 30, 2010.) The reality is there is a huge value in following you around the Internet, wherever you go.
How do the Internet spies accomplish this? They install small files on your computer known as “cookies” when you visit a website – not necessarily with your knowledge. Through cookies, your Web activities are recorded, tracked, and cross-referenced with other data bases and programs. Although cookies have been around since the mid-90’s, most consumers have no idea of what they are, let alone of their power and utility. In more recent times, other files and programs known as “beacons,” “Flash cookies” and “third party tracking” have also emerged and with a greater dimension of spy sophistication. And, here’s the clincher, these spy activities are not necessarily illegal. Courts have ruled that the simplest flavor of cookies is perfectly legal; they haven’t ruled yet on the more sophisticated Internet spy techniques.
In addition, the information that you place voluntarily on the Web is generally considered fair game for everyone – up to a point. We saw what happened last year with Facebook’s Beacon fiasco. Beacon, a new feature launched by Facebook in 2007, was an advertising system by which your activity on Facebook’s member sites may have been shared among your Facebook friends without your approval. A number of Facebook users came unglued when they learned about it. Once MoveOn.org and other advocacy groups jumped on the bandwagon, it became headline news. As a result of a class action law suit, Beacon was shut down last year, and Facebook’s CEO publically apologized. But the fact remains, your “shared” information is readily accessible by others on the Web, and who knows how it’s being used?
Smart mobile phones, with all of their “apps,” are also disseminating personal information via the Web unbeknown to its users. Do you know, for example, that if you post a picture on the Web with your iPhone, the picture’s GPS coordinates (where the picture was taken) are also provided? So the young teenage girl who posts a picture of herself at home plus a comment on Twitter that states, “My parents are out of town and I’m all alone at home,” just notified the Twitter world not only that she’s alone and at home but, through the picture, provided her address as well, assuming the picture was taken in her home. The ramifications of this one application are mind boggling for those who don’t know about it, which is the majority of people! And that’s just one example of thousands of iPhone apps.
Here’s the point – Personal information provided through the Web that is placed in the wrong hands can and will be exploited, on the one hand. On the other, the Internet still represents a free and open information exchange, unburdened by government regulation. The controversy over Internet privacy, which has been brewing for some time, is now gaining steam and will get serious attention over the next few weeks when the Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department square off on this matter. Commerce officials lean in the direction of the Internet’s self-regulation, whereby, according to the New York Times, “companies post their privacy policies online or consumers check a box agreeing to abide by them.” Trade commission officials, however, are for a stricter policy that requires a “do not track option” on a website. (New York Times, “Stage Set for Showdown on Online Privacy,” Nov. 10, 2010.)
Internet companies, federal regulators, the Obama administration, Congress and perhaps above all, consumers have a stake in the outcome of this privacy debate. Where do you stand?