Saturday, July 2, 2011

Welcome to the Machine: Online Data Tracking

 Did Pink Floyd unknowingly predict the new age of online advertising in September of 1975? I think so...
Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been?
It's alright we know where you've been.
 I am being facetious about the Pink Floyd song reference, but that lyric is appropriate for what has become "the fastest growing business on the internet" according to a Wall Street Journal investigation. The newspaper has recently finished an extensive investigation to a very lucrative and highly-financed industry: tracking you online and collecting your bread crumbs (or cookies as the case may be). Even if you are an internet novice and you only use the web to check your email and buy airline tickets, don't worry, there are over one hundred internet collection company, most of which with a dossier all about you! 

One of the largest companies who is interested in what you do online is called Lotame Industries, Inc. Their purpose is to place data files in your computer system to follow you around online. *It is important to note that while these devices are actively being incorporated in your web experience, they are not necessarily sinister, it all depends on you has it and how they are using it. Let's take a quick look at two typs of data files: beacons and cookies, to see what they do before we get too far into how the major internet data collectors are using that information.

First, beacons are not files embedded into your computer like cookies are. According to Advertising Network Initiative, beacons are "a small string of software code that represents a graphic image request on a web page or email" and can be used for "site traffic reporting, unique visitor counts, advertising auditing and reporting, and personalization." The blog that you are reading now, my blog, is using beacon technology, via Google Analytics. With the beacon, I can detect if readers are coming from a Facebook link or a news article comment and what country they are from. For example, through my data tracking, I know that last month I had 942 individual web visits, including 14 hits from the UK and 4 from Australia. And, like the majority of beacon tracking, that is all that I knew about my visitors, because most beacon tracking is anonymous. I have no idea if more men or women are visiting my blog, if they are in rural or metropolitan areas or what their views are about anything, other than they read what I have written. Cookies are another matter....

Again citing the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI), cookies are "small chunks of data created by a web server, delivered through a web browser, and stored on your computer. They provide a means for web sites that you visit to keep track of your online patterns and preferences, as well as identify you as a return visitor. Cookies make the personalization of your web experiences possible." Again, not all cookies are bad things, and in some cases, you might want to have a small file buried in your computer system which would help track your personal data with that site. The NAI gives the example that "without the use of cookie files, it would be virtually impossible to maintain an online stock portfolio. You would need to re-enter your information from scratch upon each visit to that web site." But what if someone put cookies on your computer, not for the purpose of helping you monitor your online stock portfolio, but to instead bundle your personal information to resell to other companies? And what if it wasn't one or two companies collecting this data, but over a hundred of them? That is exactly what the Wall Street Journal discovered with their investigation.

The Wall Street Journal reported that not only is online tracking the fastest growing business online, that it is already pervasive. They reported that "the nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none" and that "tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to 'cookie' files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found 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. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them" (Wall Street Journal). If that be the case, then I cannot imagine a more troubling development in the area of personal communication and technology. I wrote last week about Facebook and Twitter selling your content on their sites to brand managers to infiltrate your web experience. While I found that in slightly poor taste to their users, that practice is a far cry from what is being reported here. That would be the difference between seeing your house from Google Earth and walking in the front door with a notepad and following you from room to room...

The Wall Street Journal reports that these companies don't seem to make any qualms about what they are up to. "'It is a sea change in the way the industry works,' says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. 'Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages'" (Wall Street Journal). This has been the age old problem of advertising. John Wanamaker, the father of the modern department store once famously said, "half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half." Since that time of the early 20th century, advertising has become increasingly scientific to ensure that advertising be measured and analyzed for effectiveness, beginning with Claude Hopkins book, Scientific Advertising, published in 1921.

As a Mass Comm scholar and a certified "ad man" I take the role of advertising in society very seriously. Advertising certainly has a place in our world for both businesses and consumers, but I fear that this might be where we need to draw the line. Even if companies are collecting, "mostly" anonymous information, there is still the possibility that you could be personally identified in the process. Facebook famously tried to fashion a beacon advertising program for its users and was permanently shut down after a man bought an engagement ring for his fiance and the news was accidentally posted to his FB page. The news is not entirely anecdotal. The Wall Street Journal, as a part of their investigation set up a computer to test the 50 most popular web sites to see what kind of data tracking that the machine would absorb. According to the WS Journal, "As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal's test computer... over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold." (Wall Street Journal).

How is this possible? Why hasn't the FTC, the body in charge of regulating advertising gotten involved in this? The short answer is, they have begun to investigate the practice. In November of 2009, the FTC hosted a roundtable discussion concerning the practice of "Analytics and Ad Targeting Practices", moderated by PrivacyChoice, an online privacy group.They also hosted a discussion moderated by the Center for a Digital Democracy (CDD). In it, the CDD petitioned the FTC to act toward granting consumers a greater level of protection over their own data and patterns of usage online:

We are especially concerned with two fundamental and related issues. First, that consumers have no understanding of how their data are being collected and used for both profiling and targeting. Second, that these data are often used to offer consumers products and services—including critical ones related to personal finances and health—via interactive marketing techniques that directly affect their welfare. Consumers are faced with a largely invisible and all-­‐encompassing data collection apparatus, often operating automatically, that makes decisions about the prices and services they are offered. The online ad industry itself has called this system the 'persuasion architecture process' or 'precision marketing.'”
And while the FTC held more roundtable discussions and a couple of "town hall forums" in 2007, it does not appear from their web site that any further regulation has been enacted.

What can you do to opt-out of online tracking? There are privacy groups out there who believe that the collection of our private data, without our active permission is beyond the pale. is a company who will actively help you determine who is tracking your internet usage and help you curtail the activity. The Network Advertising Initiative also has an online opt-out page to help you distance yourself from online trackers, and even Lotame Industries, the largest online tracking company has a page for you to opt-out of their loop as well.

The problem remains, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, that even if you remove the cookies and opt-out of being tracked voluntarily, there is no law or regulation on the books to prevent them from circling back directly, following you around.

1 comment:

  1. I find it so interesting that we are in an age where the largest b2b commodity is data.


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